Studying in South Africa is a race against time for Reginald van Wyk, as he tries to finish his online coursework before the country’s scheduled daily power cuts make learning impossible.
A member of the Cape Town Society for the Blind (CTSB), the 43-year-old is studying computer skills through the charity, which offers support and training to about 120 blind and visually impaired people.
“We don’t need light because we can’t see, but we need power to listen to our audio course-work on the computer,” van Wyk said at CTSB’s computer lab. “Our studies have been impacted.”
Load shedding intended to take pressure off the ailing power grid run by struggling state utility Eskom have worsened again since early 2022 – leaving South Africans without electricity for up to 10 hours each day, and hindering charities like CTSB.
As part of national efforts to tackle the energy crisis, the government in March created a new post – minister of electricity – and handed it to Kgosientsho Ramokgopa.
Ramokgopa’s plans include extending the life of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations and maintaining large outlays on diesel for Eskom’s emergency open-cycle gas turbines.
The minister has also vowed to auction more than 15 000 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy project tenders – capacity that is equal to powering roughly 9.75 million homes, according to Eskom estimates that 1MW can supply about 650 homes.
In the meantime, individuals, organisations and private companies who can afford to do so are rushing to buy solar power systems to keep their homes and businesses running.
South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal nations, according to the World Bank, and the cost of solar installations puts constant power out of reach for many citizens and small firms, causing lost earnings, business closures and job losses.
For households earning less than R800 per month, access to solar power grew to 3 percent in 2021 from 0.3% in 2015, according to the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO), a university-based research partnership.
In the highest income group, covering those earning more than R51 200 monthly, solar access rose to 12% from 4% over the same period, the research found.
Some companies are financing innovations to support citizens or charities who would otherwise be left in the dark – be it through portable or pay-as-you-go solar systems.
CTSB, for example, will get solar panels and battery storage in the coming weeks through support from online solar marketplace Sun Exchange and cash from reinsurance company Hannover Re.
Hleziphi Siyothula-Mtshizana, the founder of In Pursuit Renewable Energy, an energy services company, said companies are “moving away from just donating food parcels to communities”.
“Corporates are playing a significant role in transitioning the (energy) industry to be more inclusive,” she told a solar power conference in Johannesburg last month.
Online solar marketplace
Aware of the high costs of solar for a charity, CTSB head Judith Coetzee approached Sun Exchange after seeing the company help schools, housing estates and farms get panels.
Sun Exchange enables individual buyers to purchase solar cells with cash or bitcoin for crowdfunded projects in emerging economies and then lease them to schools, businesses and other organisations which pay the investors for the power.
The company recently began partnering with businesses to encourage them to use their social investment budgets to sponsor or invest in “measurable renewable energy projects”, according to Mike Pearce, Sun Exchange’s corporate partner manager.
The partnership involving CTSB and Hannover Re is its third such arrangement to date, with more in the pipeline, he added.
For CTSB, the support could not have come sooner, as power cuts have hampered production and delivery of its woven products like baskets and chairs – costing it about R1 million in sales each year, it said.
Through Hannover Re’s donation of R1 million and sales made on Sun Exchange’s site, CTSB will get 53 kilowatts worth of solar panels and 80 kilowatt-hours of battery storage, which Pearce said would keep it “up and running” during a power cut.
“That is really the game-changer,” he added.