By Tim Cohen 10 January 2021

 (Photo: Unsplash / Maik Garbade)

I can solve all Eskom’s problems in one sentence. This is not a brag. It’s just a fact. And it’s such an obvious fact, that I wonder why it isn’t being done. Frankly, I’m suspicious.

First published in Daily Maverick 168

We will get to the sentence, but first, here is the background. Years ago, I wrote a column for Daily Maverick in the early days of the site with the enormously provocative headline: “Message to Eskom: screw you”. (Great headline, the brainchild of DM Editor in Chief Branko Brkic.)


The story was about my own personal trials and triumphs living off the grid. In those days, it was something of a novelty, so it was interesting for readers as an experiment about what was then a new kind of lifestyle. 

The short version of the story is that my wife and I decided to move to a very remote place in the Karoo. It is so remote (we joke now that we have always been match-fit for Covid-19) that it did not have electricity nearby. We were faced with the tricky choice of bringing electricity in, which would have been a very expensive process. It’s about 5km to the nearest Eskom line. Farmers in the area do this, so it was conceivable, but the line has to be approved and it has to run fairly high off the ground, so that means a pile of poles and a whole construction process.

So for reasons that were neither necessarily environmentally conscious nor perspicacious, we decided to plunge into the wild world of solar power. We had some advantages, in that because we were in control of the house construction process, we could build in power-saving mechanisms. This is important because the less power you use, the less power you need to generate. The biggest issue was water heating because modern water geysers are massively power consumptive. So instead we use gas water heaters and gas cookers. This is important because it does mean transferring existing homes to solar power is often more complicated than simply putting in a few solar panels. 

The other complication has been storing power overnight. If I had a rand for every time a solar sceptic, of which there are gazillions, pointed out ever so patiently the astounding fact that solar power does not work at night, I would be a very rich person. Even then there were many options, but we opted for the most obvious: batteries. 

Most of our equipment came from a shop in Johannesburg that was run out of a house in suburbia; it was all such a novelty at the time. Now there are solar shops everywhere. After plugging some numbers into their system, our supplier decided we needed at least eight batteries and eight solar panels, and some assorted electrical equipment, and the total cost at the time was about R100,000. At the time, that seemed breathtaking, but since we had no real choice, we plonked our hard-earned moola on the table. 

Batteries are tricky. If you put too much demand on the batteries, they don’t last as long, so your usage and your system need to be matched. This is something Eskom knows everything about. Initially, I made the mistake of under-providing storage capacity, and our electricity demands were much higher than I thought. The result was disastrous, and our first set of batteries only lasted a few years. 

The result was more digging in the pocket, but once bitten, twice shy, and we forked out around R30,000 for the next batch. By this time, however, battery tech had improved, and instead of normal lead-acid batteries, we bought batteries specifically designed for static use; they were lower-voltage and physically much larger rather than the rejigged, deep-cycle car batteries we had bought previously. But they worked pretty well and lasted seven years, which is within the factory specs, if slightly at the lower end. 

But having been in the market, I am very aware of cost trends, and these trends are astounding. Every year, despite the decline of the rand, the price of solar panels has declined and their power increased. It is rather similar to the seemingly inexorable rise in computing power; it just seems like there is no end to the improvements. We spent about R6,000 per panel for a set of 120-watt panels. We added more later, as you can very easily.

The current price is around R2,000 for a 340-watt panel of around the same physical size. But the incredible thing is that those panels we bought in 2010 are still generating almost precisely the same amount of power as when they were first installed. And the power we generate is enough for a fleet of fridges and computers and hair dryers and all the mod cons.

There are big solar and wind projects being planned for SA, but somehow they never get going. Are they sufficient? I don’t think so. Surely this problem needs to be klapped on the head once and for all. 

Recently, we have once again taken the plunge and replaced our battery set, this time for lithium-ion batteries. They are pretty scary expensive; for our usage, they cost about R60,000. And yet, they are also a marvel. They hold their power fabulously and recoup lost or used power faster. Kitchen accessories we had decided to do without, including kettles and coffee makers, have now reappeared. And the whole system is now computerised and linked to a smartphone app, so you can tell, with precision, how much electricity is being generated, how much is being used, and how much you have left. 

So, how does it feel to not pay Eskom a cent for 10 years? Pretty good actually. But do the costs pan out? The answer is with ease – and getting easier all the time. I have spent, I would guess, plus-minus R200,000 over the past 10 years on my electrical system. Add in the costs of gas of about R500 a month, you could say the all-in cost has been about R300,000 or R2,500 a month for a completely livable lifestyle. Compared to my colleagues paying around R5,000 a month in Cape Town and Johannesburg for their electricity, this looks like a pretty big bargain. 

The prejudice in the higher ranks of the ANC and Eskom to renewable energy is really palpable. They hit a high point in 2016 when the former Eskom CEO Matshela Koko complained loudly on social media, and presumably in the lofty towers of government too, that Eskom was generating coal power at around 83c/kWh but was paying around 218c/kWh on average for solar power.

The world was full of scepticism at the time, and major publications like the FT and the Wall Street Journal would run articles about the “hidden costs”, “variable inputs” and “balancing costs” in renewable power – anything to avoid the disruptive new wave. What status-quo preserving, incumbent-protecting junk all these articles have turned out to be. Koko’s costs were accurate, on a narrow view at the time, but he was deliberately ignoring the sunk costs of all the existing power stations in the Eskom fleet, which we now know, can no longer generate power for toffee. Most importantly, he ignored the trend, which showed, even then, that solar and wind power costs were coming down fast. 

But here is the coup-de-grace. The cost differences are now just laughable: the latest photovoltaic projects produce power at around 80c/kWh, around half the levelised cost of coal power from Medupi and Kusile. They are insanely cheap, and still coming down! And in a wonderful twist of fate, after his ignominious ejection from Eskom, Koko is now selling solar power to the Zimbabweans.

Eskom has always argued, and still does, that coal needs to be there for something called “baseload power”. It’s just such nonsense; power is power no matter how it is generated. Even if you added nuclear power, you still need to balance the grid. Meanwhile, the children of Mpumalanga choke on coal dust and smoke, while these huge coal power stations belch out poison into the atmosphere. 

Why do they stick with this argument? Why don’t they allow the mines to build their own solar plants? Why do we still have load shedding? The lack of electrical power, because of its place at the base of the industrial process, effectively puts a cap on industrial and commercial activity. If it’s very expensive to produce, the effect is the same. Why would you drag around such an obvious ball and chain? Since there is now an obvious, environmentally friendly option, who would not go for that?

The answers to most of these questions remain bafflingly unanswered. Some of the answers are obvious; having paid an enormous sum for the construction of big coal-powered stations, the government is in the invidious position of having to prevent big users from opting out of the system, which would reduce income. And the whole coal-supply chain is now chock-a-block with politically influential, ANC-funding rent-seekers. The hope that somehow Eskom will miraculously stop load shedding lingers, despite the evidence. Confirmation bias is all-embracing.

So, about that sentence. It is this: Eskom should buy a huge number of solar panels and stick them up all over the Karoo, or let someone else do it and buy the power. The Chinese now have three photovoltaic projects that generate over a gigawatt of power each. The largest is the Tengger Desert Solar Park Project, which generates 1,547MW. The trio produces almost as much power as Medupi, but unlike Medupi, their input costs, being sunlight, are zero. And unlike Medupi, they just work.

There are big solar and wind projects being planned for SA, but somehow they never get going. Are they sufficient? I don’t think so. Surely this problem needs to be klapped on the head once and for all. 

But the vested interests are too vested, the politicians too scared and the public too defeated. Somehow nuclear energy is now considered the new saviour. It’s beyond ridiculous.

Personally, I’m just massively glad of my off-the-grid system. It’s a tiny gnat in SA’s total power production system, but what a wonder it has turned out to be. BM/DM

Comments – share your knowledge and experience

All Comments 11

  • Wendy Dewberry

    Agree fully. We were also booted into off grid living in 2007 by the same choices- no nearby eskom. We are also now on lithium ion and I cant express enough how absolutely fabulous it is to live off grid, albeit that it dirs require a mindset change and snappy on-site education for kids and guests. On the political side we have to be very careful not to acquiesce to government attempts to tax us for our “free” photovoltaic power and water, which isnt really free but more like being our own independent utility supplier. We need to stand together on this and refuse to be taxed for being off grid.

  • Franz Dullaart

    In my case (household of 2) we currently spend +/- R1000 p.m. on electricity, less in summer (I have a spreadsheet detailing consumption over the last 20 years) so it would take 25 years to recoup the cost of a R300 000 solar installation. Replacing batteries in that period would require an even longer period. There is much else wrong with this article – too much to go into here.

    • Johan De La Rey

      Have to agree. We are two in a large house, installed LED lighting, using a heat exchanger for water heating and the bill is around R650 to R1000 per month (winter). The best thing everyone can do is to implement power saving. Then discipline not to waste through leaving unnecessary lights on everywhere. Living off grid when you have to, different story. Living with and on the grid, manage your own carbon footprint and costs. No need for a R300k installation.

      • Glyn Morgan

        Johan De La Rey – Two in a large house and you say “No need for a R300k installation.” Right I agree 100%. Except that figure of R300k is wrong, get a new quote. Two of us live in a 3 bed house/swimming pool. I have had a 3 kW SSEG (Small-Scale Embedded Generation) installation for 5 years. SSEG is not 100% of-grid, I use ESCOM only when battery power is low. The entire cost was R125 000. I never pay more than R500 per month, often I pay nothing. And DO NOT KNOW WHAT BLACK_OUTS ARE! My next big cost will be when the four big gel batteries expire, maybe in 5 years time. Then I will get Li-ion. When changing to Solar one has to tweek ones life-style a bit. Get to know the power consumption of all your appliances. Do not use all your big appliances at the same time. Use a small kettle for day-to-day use. Fit a solar geyser, your biggest cost-saver! Try to do more on sunny days. Only brew your home-brew beer on sunny days! Why put up with ESKOM and ANC rubbish when you can brew your own electricity!

      • William Kelly

        Johan, if your usage is that low your commensurate solar installation capital costs will be far less. Also, are you including all the demand side levies, availability costs and so forth, plus the VAT, that goes into your power costs?

    • Johan Buys

      Franz: tell us what your 20y data says when you compare cost 2010 and cost 2020. My guess is 2020 was 4 to 5 times 2010? What do you think your R1000 will be in 2045? I know what my solar cost will be… but yes Going off-grid with just solar and batteries is expensive. Then again, the Mastercard argument : not even noticing loadshredding is priceless.

  • John Cawood

    Our little 3-bed townhouse consumes only R700 per month using a pre-paid system, even at the NMB extortive rate of R1-90/kWh. I have no special measures in place apart from mostly low power lighting, use all major appliances, 3 fridges, tumble dryer, dishwasher etc. To replace my 12kWh daily consumption with solar PV would cost me < 30k in panels but the batteries, charge controller and inverter would push that over the 100k, add in installation cost and 130k is the budget. Even with forever-batteries and zero maintenance costs this would take 15 years to pay me back at current rands. On the same basis the 130k in a 5% savings account would double in that period. We need to manufacture these power electronics locally for realistic prices.
    A better bet would be to feed my Eskom geyser with a 50 litre 'pre-heater' drum powered by 2 x 340W panels and fitted with a solar geyser element and thermostat, set as hot as possible, so that my Eskom geyser is fed with pre-heated hot water most of the time, even during the night. This measure lends itself to a DIY project, would save me up to 40% of my monthly bill and pay itself back in about 3 years. A refinement would be to have both 48V and 240V heaters and thermostats in the same vessel and avoid having to circulate, but don't see anything like that commercially available just now.

    • Johan Buys

      John: your consumption is admirably low. Better hot water solution is solar thermal system to heat a second, element-less geyser that supplies your main geyser.

  • Paul Fanner

    That 80 c per kwh mentioned in the article is the tender price for a multi- megawatt photovoltaic project in Israel. Six of them in fact. It incorporates storage as well, and initial deliveries start in I think 2 years time. There was recently another such in Saudi Arabia, at a similar price. You can bet the price to the consumer will be higher , but clearly that is the way for Eskom to go.

  • Jill Iggulden Stevens

    What about hydro-electric power and wave power.

    • William Kelly

      Totally agreed. Water makes for an excellent battery. Pump it up using excess power in the day, drain it back via turbines at night. It’s really as easy as it sounds.