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With the rising cost of electricity in South Africa – and with likely increased costs in the pipeline – it is becoming ever-more cost-effective for schools, whether rural or urban, to look at drawing at least part of their power needs directly from solar inputs. We take a look.

In South Africa, education faces many challenges, not least among these the basic costs of operating. One of the key costs is that of keeping the lights on and the computers running, in other words, the cost of electricity. The confusion and administrative mess that is Eskom means that there is likely another heft electricity price hike in the offing – Eskom currently is pleading with the National Energy Regulatory Authority (NERSA) for a nearly 20% price increase, just to keep itself afloat. So electricity, which is already a major factor in everyone’s budget, is about to cost even more. Therefore the case for going as much off-grid as possible is becoming stronger by the day.


Much like a love story featuring a lonely boy who finds fulfilment by unexpectedly falling in love, so too are businesses, individuals and, increasingly, schools, finding that solar energy provision – once considered an indulgence of rich urban elites or last-ditch, expensive and only partial solutions for off-grid locations – is beginning to ‘fall in love’ with solar energy.
The reason is that the need for keeping operating costs down, while ensuring a reliable energy supply, has found its match with de-escalating prices for items such as solar panels, increased efficiencies of solar energy-based systems and the extending reliability and lifespans of such hardware. This means, in brief, that a need that once could theoretically be met but which was not quite practicable in real-world terms, has become not only viable but highly attractive.

For schools in particular, where the budgetary squeeze is such that money spent of just keeping the lights on is money not spent on other vital aspects of education, solar is not merely a good idea, but increasingly a vitally necessary one. And with a clutch of local entrepreneurs launching into this arena with innovative payment plans, such as rent-to-own, and long-term warranties out to 25 years, both the capital cost recovery time has dropped while net outlay can be maintained from the word go such that it costs no more – and may even save some money – to go with a solar option than to stay entirely grind-dependent. Add to that, and depending on the tariff rate being applied in a particular location, full repayment and therefore ownership of such an ancillary electricity provision system could be as little as five years but probably no more than 10 years, and it becomes clear that there is a powerful business argument in favour of this option.


Currently, there is a lag between the state of knowledge of many school governing bodies about their options with regard to how far solar technology has evolved in a very short time, relative to its ability to address current electricity consumption and future needs. Almost none realise that with the right equipment, and in partnering with the right solutions provider, they could have an effective system installed very quickly and which provides not only an immediate savings on the bottom line of running their institutions, but actually may get them some money back in.
And then, once the equipment is paid for out of revenues that would otherwise have gone to Eskom or to the local electricity supplier – usually a municipality – for the rest of the system’s life, which could be as long as 50 years, there will be 100% savings on anything of up to 30-40% of the institution’s total electricity costs. In other words, a third or more of a school’s energy costs would be, in effect, ‘for free’. Once these facts are fully absorbed, historically-based concerns about the viability of solar as a part solution for energy provision in virtually any environment tend to disappear.


As with any new idea, one of the first hurdles any innovative renewable energy company faces with a prospective client is the client’s understanding of their model and the realisation of the immediate, intermediate and long-term benefits involved. Says Danie Jansen, Zeroth Energy Operations Director: ‘The most challenging part for us as an energy solutions and greening company, besides getting a school’s governing body to trust that one is there to help them and not just sell them something, was finding the partners that were willing to see the future for the school in “going green”.’


If a grid-tied solar solution can save money for an institution such as a school, the inevitable question is how much. The answer depends on the municipality (or other provider’s) bill. Some municipalities have a School Tariff. In these instances, the savings are about R1 200 for the first year. But some schools save as much as R6 000 in the first month as they do not already enjoy preferential tariffs. And some schools – in the right municipality – might even make some money back, albeit a nominal R100 a holiday, so these institutions can even make money from start-up under the right circumstances.


There are many different starting points, given the varying circumstances of particular schools. Assessment of a specific institution’s needs and historic consumption is necessary so this means obtaining the last 12 months’ electrical statements to see what the winter versus summer rates and consumption are. This data can then also be used to calculate the appropriate solar-based system for that institution. Then a ‘going green’ action plan is devised, one in which money can be saved at no capital expenditure on the institution’s part, even if it cannot afford the cash option.
From the client or institution’s perspective, an understanding is developed of how solar works. And, once it is realised that the equipment will be ‘on the roof’ for the next 25-50 years to provide electricity for a very long time, even long after the warranties, the reaction is usually positive.

‘Sometimes they start asking all sorts of questions,’ say Jansen. ‘Does this work? Can we trust the technology? I need big KVA – can this system give me that? What’s great is that in terms of our solution the answer is almost always “Yes” to all. Every piece of equipment is from the best quality and they are all bankable products. That literally means that the bank even approves this equipment.’ Once a school approves the idea, the proposal becomes a project. ‘We arrange a site visit to do assessments like checking the roofs, the cables, all those odds and ends that might change the price,’ continues Jansen. ‘With the Rent-to-Own system, we need some paperwork to make sure the school can afford it. We also see if they might want to look at energy efficiency to reduce the current electricity bill or a battery backup system or just running the borehole on solar to start somewhere, in some cases. When this is all done, we can start an installation. Everything is dependent on the school’s needs.’


As indicated, solar energy can now be obtained via a rental option which eliminates the up-front capital costs of installation, maintenance and monitoring. The savings on the school’s energy bill are immediate and make a significant impact. The average spend on water and electricity in a government school is around R1m per annum, while schools are only given enough by government to cover about three months of these annualised costs. Given that there are 3 000 schools in the Gauteng province alone, if a solar solution was to be put in every Gauteng school today, then the regional Department of Education could save Education around R300m in energy costs per annum, according to one estimate.

The same sort of proportional saving can be projected across all provinces in the country. At a nominal new construction cost of R30m, that could mean that up to 10 extra schools could be built a year in Gauteng alone, without any extra money being spent over current operational costs.


Schools are no different to any other business: when the product is improved and the bottom line of the business grows, it makes room for expansion. Apart from the fact that more schools could be built, existing schools would benefit in a variety of ways, from more and better educational materials, like books and stationery, to more and better equipment, like computers and sports supplies, and more teachers who are more highly trained and who earn better salaries. It is also feasible that such schools could afford improvements to existing facilities, like laboratories and technical centres. An additional benefit is that, aside from owning the equipment outright for the remainder of its lifetime – currently that would be anything from two to over four decades – on a rent-to-own agreement, investment by schools would enhance student, community, regional and national government involvement in ‘going green’ initiatives and in doing the right thing for the environment, which is a general benefit for the country and the planet.

It has already been shown that just the fact of a solar installation in a school increases student involvement and interest, and learners get direct hands-on experience of how solar works, thereby paving the way for future generations literally schooled in the positives of ‘going green’ and using natural renewables such as abundantly available sunlight to help design a more sustainable future for all. With such a head start, pupils from schools with solar systems are therefore afforded an opportunity to be ahead of the pack with respect to future employment in a sector which has seen, worldwide, the number of jobs in this field increase by 10% per annum since 2010. In short, affordable solar solutions for schools represent a win-win-win outcome.


Increasingly, the role of partnerships in achieving sustainable outcomes is coming to the fore, most especially with emergent technological solutions such as grid-tied power production.
Realising this, Zeroth Energy has undertaken joint ventures and forged key partnerships with other role-players in the solar sector. One such is the Lwandle Lomnotho Foundation. For this organisation, schools are critical in terms of their ability to educate and provide future leaders capable of taking South Africa to new levels of people empowerment and development of communities. The Foundation aims to assist with pin-pointing and honing of natural skills and talents, which in turn means each year there is a growing number of school-leavers who have a better idea and understanding of the world. Specifically, with respect to its partnership with Zeroth, this means making a difference in the improvement of the schooling environment which means, in turn, learners are able to harness their talents and pave the way for a future which will be increasingly based on renewable and other sustainable solutions for a range of issues.

For example, the Foundation says, solar solutions in their schools can aid in teaching pupils more about the advantages of using solar energy. ‘Many learners know very little about the use of solar. With this collaboration we are then also able to meet our goals and objectives as an organisation: to make renewable energy accessible to people who thought it impossible before,’ explains Xolani Mdoda, Executive Chairman of the foundation. ‘As schools “go solar” we have found that there is a significant impact on the way that both students and parents think, with a definite positive effect in terms of their futures.’


So what do schools which have gone this route have to say? It would seem, mainly, lots of good things. According to Derek Wilke, of Northcliff High School, the core reasons for the choice of a solar energy system were to reduce the school’s electricity costs and to be more environmentally friendly. Northcliff obtained its system two months ago through Get Off Grid, another local entity which has since partnered with Zeroth Energy. Wilke says there has been a noticeable change in students’ attitudes since their new solar system came on stream.
‘There is lots of growing interest. We have installed a TV which shows learners the details of what energy has been produced, how much this is reducing the school’s carbon footprint and, if using conventional energy, how much (coal) the school would be using with a conventional system.’

This school installed a 24kWh grid-tied system in September. Consumption did drop a large amount in October, but a one-week holiday at the start of the month meant it was difficult to gauge exactly what ongoing savings would look like. For example, the school’s August bill showed a 33 139kWh usage at a cost of R91 128. October (the first full month of solar energy usage) consumption had dropped by about a third to 22 571kWh, at a cost of R60 217. But to understand the impact more precisely, the one-week holiday must be borne in mind, plus the reduced summer electricity tariff for October. The initial system is designed to cover base-time usage during weekends and holidays and so only will cover about 15% of day-time usage, assuming there is no cloud cover. With all relevant considerations taken into account, indications are that steady savings will be recorded in coming months. According to Wilke, the system being used at Northcliff was ‘extremely easy’ to install. ‘It took roughly a week, with one or two changes to the inverter software so that it could accommodate the higher than normal voltage that comes into the school,’ he adds. The school is now doubling up on its existing system, which will obviously double its capacity, and therefore savings.

‘On good days we hope to cover about 30% of our day-time usage and more than cover our base-load usage on weekends and holidays. I believe it will also show parents and pupils that we are confident that this is the way to go and will encourage more people to think upon these lines. ‘As we are making use of a five-year rent-to-own solar system, we know that within a relatively short period of time we will have significant savings, and due to the 25-year plus warranty on panels, we hope to have at least 20 years of free energy. We hope with the savings to invest in more solar for the school as well as extending our borehole irrigation into more parts of the school. ‘I think that more schools should make use of solar. As we have at this stage gone for the most cost-effective grid-tied solution (no batteries – which is a disadvantage when Eskom is down) we are paying on the rental only a little bit more than what we would be paying Eskom for the same energy, weather dependant. ‘In other words, on good sunny days we are essentially paying off the rental with money that would’ve gone to Eskom.’

This strategy makes particular sense to schools that are high consumers and with high rates. Schools that are, for example, on cheaper rural rates or in areas where electricity isn’t as expensive, would have to take a longer-term view on savings which should be achieved through a similar system.


Jas Fourie, of Laerskool President Pretorius in Potchefstroom, says this school chose its system shortly after the Northcliff project and used the services of Get Off Grid and Zeroth Energy in partnership. ‘The main thought behind the conversion to solar electricity was based on the ever-increasing municipal accounts,’ explains Fourie. ‘In addition, increased usage would cost about R10 000 more monthly. We also found that voltage drops were adversely affecting the life-span of electrical equipment and computers.

‘The governing board decided it would take the opportunity of a commitment of R10 041 a month for a period of 10 years to install a solar solution, especially in the light of current high electricity cost increases yearly. ‘Being something new, the children were very interested, especially so after all 92 solar panels were on the roofs. Teachers explained to them what it was all about and what the outcome would be. ‘The system has been in place through October to November 2017 and there is definitely a change in the amounts of electricity usage, but a more precise evaluation will be made after about three months of usage. ‘I am of the opinion that in the short-, medium – and long-term, taking into account massive electricity cost increases, all schools should consider this option. There will always be challenges, depending on the type of school, availability of funds and the mind-set of school bodies. But these sorts of systems will also influence the future and the way forward, especially with expensive electricity costs, power outages and load shedding.’


As time goes on, people are seeing solar arrays in all arenas of life, from shopping centres to small and large businesses and homes. Any operation that consumes a large portion of its power utilisation during the day is now in a position to make a money-saving investment in solar. Both the sheer economics of such a move, and the fact that using renewable energy sets the groundwork for a better future for all, indicates that a growing number of individuals and organisations, including schools, are likely to take this route.
Consumers have in general been nervous of the financial commitment of a solar installation, but as more installations come on line, consumers are beginning to have faith in solar technology, say industry players. ‘We are seeing an increase every year in the number of electric cars being developed and I believe we can draw a parallel with solar in this respect. The more we see, the greater the faith in the technology and thus the greater the interest in the product,’ says Zeroth’s partner Get Off Grid.

So what is the catch? According to those involved on the ground, there isn’t one. Perhaps, then, it is time for those involved in a key aspect of our collective future – educators, educational managers and educational administrators – to collectively realise that applying solar energy solutions in schools is good for everyone, from the learners and their institutions, both being direct beneficiaries, to the emergent cadre of technically-oriented school-leavers and graduates. As Simply Green has been saying from the outset, a solar future is a good future for everyone – and for the planet.


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