Mark Borchers from SEA writes on a recent visit to an embedded photovoltaic generation project in a commercial building, and the insights into the industry acceleration gained there.
I recently visited a shopping mall in Tshwane, South Africa, which had installed a grid-connected solar PV system on its roof (called an ‘embedded’ generator – because it is embedded in the local distribution grid). This is not unusual in the country nowadays, and estimates are that over 1000 embedded, distributed PV systems are in existence around the country, generating 40 to 50 Megawatts during the day. But I was struck by the fact that the mall developer said that for them such installations are now a financial no-brainer – giving an 18% internal rate of return (IRR) with a 5 year payback (whereas the decision to build a mall only requires a 10% IRR). So they intend to do these installations on all malls they construct. What’s behind this trend? Largely a combination of steadily reducing international solar PV prices and consistently higher-than-inflation electricity price hikes. Also, mall and other commercial operation load profiles tend to match solar PV generation quite well, being daytime-peaking.
While national government and most municipalities do not yet have clear regulatory frameworks to accommodate such installations, the financial case particularly in the commercial sector is such that they are happening anyway, leaving the government to catch a horse that has already bolted from the stable. A few quick calculations show that mall construction alone is likely to add 6 or more Mega-Watts (MW) of solar PV to the country’s electricity grid capacity per year. Others estimate that 500MW per year could be added from these embedded PV systems from all sectors. That’s about 1% of the total national generation capacity per year, which is significant, and something that national electricity planners will have to take seriously.
There are many benefits to these developments, but also challenges. The benefits include growth in renewable, low carbon energy, local economic development, and the fact that such generation capacity is entirely privately funded. The challenges include potential revenue loss from electricity distributors due to reduced sales, and balancing the grid power at a national level to meet the country’s demand – particularly the evening peak demand where solar PV does not contribute. There has been significant work done to show how the country can negotiate these challenges, but it does mean that well-entrenched systems have to adjust and change – which seldom happens quickly. Overall, this trend is in keeping with what is being observed internationally: that the future will move increasingly towards decentralized generation, with solar PV in particular becoming an increasingly big player. It has been suggested that the days of large power utilities are numbered. (Bloomberg.com)
This is a development we need to keep an eye on in urban Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. Where national grid power prices are rising fast, as is the case in many African countries, the decreasing international solar PV prices will sooner or later lead to a situation where it makes sense for businesses to install their own grid-connected rooftop systems. And this is likely to happen irrespective of what government or utilities do, or don’t do, about it. It’s an inevitable transformation of the power sector which has big implications for sustainable energy planning in urban areas.