Tech news: The success of mini-grids in informal settlements. File photo.
Tech news: The success of mini-grids in informal settlements. File photo.

Tech news: the success of mini-grids in informal settlements

By Louis Fourie Time of article published Jul 30, 2021

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Louis Fourie

WHILE I was watching the recent looting spree in Kwazulu-Natal and Gauteng, with a deep sadness in my innermost, I could not help to wonder how the looters were going to use the electric appliances. Many of them live in informal settlements and probably do not have adequate or legal access to electricity.

Whatever the real motivation for the looting, it became apparent that South Africa can no longer afford to ignore the dire situation and contributing factors of most of the people living in informal settlements.

A dire situation

According to the General Household Survey of the Department of Statistics, about 7.9 million people in South Africa are living in makeshift shacks in the 2 700 informal settlements – often without running water and electricity in their shacks and with little hope that they would receive electricity soon. And even if electricity became available, they would most probably be unable to afford it since many of these people are unemployed and poor while Eskom and municipality electricity prices have become unaffordable due to the continuous and prodigious increases.

Energy poverty creates health hazards to adults and children, due to the use of paraffin or gas, and limits educational and economic opportunity.

One such an informal settlement in the Cape Town metropole is Qandu-Qandu in Khayelitsha, which got its name from the sound of striking hammers.

It was established in April 2018 on a wetland. Most of the 5 000 houses are without electricity, except for a few izinyoka (illegal and dangerous connections) to the nearest “danger box”, the formal electricity grid supply point in the neighbouring Green Point in Khayelitsha.

Most of the people who settled in Qandu-Qandu were backyard dwellers in Khayelitsha who could no longer afford the rent. Seventy percent of them are unemployed and most survive entirely on children grants provided by the government.

Unfortunately, like most cities, the City of Cape Town has limited resources for unplanned settlements in its strictly controlled budget and way too many communities waiting for improved services.

Bringing informal settlements onto the electricity grid is further complicated by policy, legal and jurisdiction issues. It is therefore imperative that we think creatively to solve the electricity problem in informal settlements.

Why do municipalities consider connection to the national grid as the preferred solution? Is it not the ridiculously expensive Eskom and municipal electricity costs that partially led to the non-payment culture and huge electricity debt crisis of R72 billion as well as the numerous illegal connections in many of the poorer areas that are costing municipalities and Eskom many more millions?

A homegrown solution

Fortunately, Dr Jiska de Groot, an expert in clean and sustainable energy at the University of Cape Town, and Professor Frederico Caprotti, from the University of Exeter in the UK, received the Chair’s Prize of R10 million from the 2020 Newton Fund awards for their work on urban energy transformations and the safe and reliable energy supply to informal settlements.

She and her team, together with the University of Exeter, Thrie Energy Collective, and Zonke Energy, started a life-changing project called Energy 4 Wellbeing in Qandu-Qandu. The project focuses on disruptive innovation and entails mini-grids consisting of solar towers, which are connected to the shacks and run by social enterprises. The four solar towers in Qandu-Qandu provide enough clean energy for lighting at night, the charging of cellphones, and television for about 28 people. The solar mini grids were paired with an app-based pay-as-you-go sustainable business model and can deliver solar energy 40% cheaper than existing energy sources.

Unfortunately, refrigeration remained a major problem since the energy consumption of refrigerators is much higher than the current energy generated by the solar installation, or the illegal connections can supply. The consequence is that perishable or fresh groceries cannot be kept in the home, which significantly increases the cost of living, and impacts the health and quality of life of the inhabitants.

It is for this reason that the Energy 4 Wellbeing team, together with Zonke Energy, are also working on a new project. The Umbane (electricity in Xhosa) project started in April 2020 and is an expansion of the solar energy work in Qandu-Qandu to include low-consumption direct current (DC) freezer/fridges into the solar mini-grid as sustainable small-scale businesses run by entrepreneurs, who happens to be mostly female. The consumption of the DC fridges is 35% lower than the fridges available on the South Africa market. It will enable people to have access to refrigeration and generate economic activity and employment within the community.

The Qandu-Qandu community is tremendously positive, not only for the convenience of electricity in their shacks, but because the solar energy grid is much safer. In the past, some owners connected their shacks illegally to the electricity grid, which has led to electrocutions and some devastating fires.

Access to clean energy via smart solar mini-grids, delivered by the Energy 4 Wellbeing project, addressed the well-being of the people of Qandu-Qandu and provided much-needed hope towards the future. It also increased their sense of safety and security due to the improved visibility in a crime-ridden neighbourhood. Furthermore, being able to charge their cellphones, people can have access to the internet which they can use to access information related to job vacancies and education, among others.

Due to the success in Qandu-Qandu, the solar mini-grid and prepaid business model has been expanded to Jabula (“have fun” in Xhosa) in the Philippi area of Cape Town where nine households of36 people are connected to a thousand-Watt solar photovoltaic 12-volt system. The solar mini-grid was necessary since the municipality had difficulty providing Jabula with electricity, due to the occupation of private land.

The mini-grid

A mini-grid is a step between the national grid solution and the single solar home solution. It is an off-grid, electricity generation system that links and supplies 10 to 150 neighbouring households with electricity. It is often used in rural communities that are too far from the national infrastructure to be connected to the electricity network, and, sometimes, in informal settlements until a permanent solution could be found.

A mini-grid usually needs an energy source such as photovoltaic panels or a wind turbine, batteries to store the energy, and a distribution and metering system to connect the households and monitor the usage. It is generally viable in only high-density communities since short distances between the power source and users limit the energy loss along the cables and thus the need for a higher voltage and more expensive system.

Sustainable upgrading

The remarkable projects have shown the potential of renewable energy to transform the lives of people in disadvantaged communities. If academia, the government, private companies and communities formed sustainable partnerships that are responsive, inclusive, and participatory within the science and policy system, they could make a difference to the energy poverty and quality of life of people living in the many informal settlements of South Africa.

Access to safe, affordable and reliable energy will safeguard families from using harmful cooking fuels, enable children to study after dark, assist adults to power their businesses, and support economic activity.

Perhaps mini-grids could be one way of providing the much-needed electricity in informal settlements, which remains a complex issue for state agencies. However, we will need a major mind-shift with regard to electricity provision when embarking on a sustainable upgrading of informal settlements.

Prof Louis C H Fourie is a technology strategist.

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.


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