South Africa: small town forced to rely on its solar energy
The story is unusual and enrages the small South African town of Frankfort, prevented from enjoying its solar energy production in a country plagued by the most serious power cuts in its history.
This rural area 140km south of Johannesburg started using locally generated power in February, mitigating the impact of power cuts of up to 12 hours a day that the country has been experiencing since late last year.
But that hasn’t been to the liking of monopolist state-owned Eskom, which launched a successful lawsuit last month over a technical argument, forcing Frankfurt’s 6,000 or so residents to stay in the dark like everyone else. .
“They fail to produce enough electricity but prevent us from using the one we produce, it makes no sense”, annoys Hans Pretorius, a local farmer.
The case, very local, underlines the frustration of many South Africans in the face of the prolonged energy crisis. The opposition even considers that it is emblematic of the obstacles encountered by private companies seeking to get out of it.
“If they don’t allow us to run our solar farm or use our own electricity, we have no choice, we will have to appeal,” the farmer told AFP. “It’s a question of survival”.
The coal-fired power stations that provide 80% of the electricity of Africa’s most industrialized country are in agony: too old, poorly maintained, their budgets hijacked by corruption. They keep breaking down.
The country has been experiencing daily blackouts since the Christmas period. These scheduled power cuts, alternating by zone, cost the country more than a billion euros per month in lost production, according to the government.
– Ubuesque and unfair –
Thando Keswa, owner of a grocery store in a township adjoining Frankfort, was forced to suspend his sale of take-out meals. His generator was costing him too much. “To burn fuel, you also burn your profits”, he says annoyed.
This chronic situation and so many others like it have prompted local businesses and individuals to come together to invest the equivalent of some 5 million euros in a solar installation. Completed in December, it is operated by Rural Free State (RFS), a subsidiary of the private company that manages the distribution network for the municipality.
The extra energy allowed the distributor to begin implementing its own power outage schedule. But at trial, Eskom argued the company had not been given permission to do so.
According to Eskom, the energy produced by the panels, which is not sufficient to fully cover the city’s needs, had already been taken into account in the calculation of the necessary load shedding levels and therefore cannot be used to reduce them.
If the local company wanted to do this, it had to use the energy it had stored as a preventive measure in batteries – which it does not currently have – argued Eskom.
If Frankfurt was allowed to break Eskom’s outage schedules, others could be encouraged to do the same, which would “seriously” increase the risk of the national grid collapsing, the public company argued.
RFS was therefore forced to switch off certain photovoltaic panels to comply with scheduled power cuts, wasting electricity that was badly needed.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party has accused Eskom of acting “like a village tyrant”, protecting its monopoly. “Frankfurt case illustrates red tape against independent power producers”.
An online petition was launched this week asking for the government’s help in breaking this impasse. “Why, despite all our efforts here, should we suffer as much as people who do nothing? Is that fair?” asks Gugu Mokoena, general manager of RFS.