Thanks to him solar panels on the roof, Pierre Mourot notices the blackouts that regularly plunge South Africans into darkness, only when complaints appear on a WhatsApp group in his Johannesburg neighborhood.

“I have a certain standard of living,” said the 68-year-old financial planner, who likes to relax in his home sauna. “I want to be able to live as I am.”

As a worsening energy crisis drags down the economy, sparking public anger, President Cyril Ramaphosa has vowed to cut red tape to boost the use of renewable energy in coal-dependent South Africa.

But many South Africans are not waiting for government action, and their impatience has led to a boom in small solar installations.

“I cannot be without power. It’s very simple, said Muro, whose panels power his home as well as the office next door. “Every minute I’m gone costs me money.”

In the first five months of this year alone, South Africa imported nearly R2.2 billion worth of solar PV panels, an analysis of customs data shows. That amounts to more than 500 MW of peak generating capacity, analysts said.

Once installed, the panels will increase the 2.1 GW of estimated small-scale solar generation capacity by about 24%, surpassing what the government has managed to acquire over a decade under its utility-scale solar strategy.

“The government completely fails to recognize how big an industry it has become,” said Frank Spencer, spokesman for the Photovoltaic Industry Association of South Africa. “It’s a quiet revolution.”

Missed chance

This is also a missed opportunity.

In a country that needs 4-6 GW of additional generation to stop load shedding, most systems are unregistered and feed nothing into a grid that has no energy.

And their high cost means, at least for now, that they are only a solution for the relatively well-off, deepening the divide in what is already one of the world’s most unequal societies.

“If you have the money, you can do it yourself,” said Solly Silow, who, like almost half of South Africans, is unemployed. “But the people who are suffering don’t have the money to buy these panels.”

Despite abundant solar and wind resources, the government is reluctant to use renewable energy sources. Ahead of the restart in 2021, pressure from mining unions ensured that the private utility project program was frozen for years.

Read: Ramaphosa moves to liberalize South Africa’s energy sector

But the decline of debt-crippled Eskom, which produces 80% of its power from coal, has increased the urgency of finding alternatives.

Tubby Tubby witnessed this firsthand. In just one month last year, his solar company Granville Energy received 349 requests for rooftop systems. “Over the last, I would say 24 months, we’ve seen continuous growth in demand month over month,” he said. “We’re seeing interest from all directions.”

By the time one of his clients, Lee Drimmel, decided to install a 42-panel system at her swimming academy last year, her monthly electricity bill was about R26,000 and blackouts had started, forcing her to cancel classes.

Read: Broadcasting killed the satellite star: Now Ellies is switching to solar smart homes

“We were going to end up charging 300 rand for a swimming lesson,” she said. “Who will pay for it? Our margins continued to shrink.”

She is now insulated from blackouts and has reduced her electricity bill by over 40%.

Across South Africa, private residents and businesses large and small are making similar calculations.

Cheaper solar PV panels and batteries, as well as the relaxation last year of regulations requiring government approval for systems larger than 1 MW, are strengthening the case for stand-alone solar power.

“Everybody’s like, ‘Okay, we’ve had enough.’ We need a solution,” said Mark Evans, director of South African consultancy Partners in Performance.

Small solar advocates say South Africa has a long way to go.

On a wall in Granville Energy’s main office, large screens show in real time how much energy customers’ solar systems are producing. After fully charging the battery, one house used only 20% of the generation capacity.

“It’s sad and very unfortunate that we’re wasting so much capacity,” Tubby said.

Announcing the planned reforms last month, Ramaphosa said Eskom would set up a pricing structure that would allow those with solar panels to sell electricity they don’t need to utilities, a common practice in many countries.

Currently, relatively few South African solar users feed power into the grid, and industry insiders say most small systems have not been declared to the authorities, despite a legal requirement to register them.

Johannesburg alone is estimated to have more than 20,000 unregistered solar systems, the majority of which are residential, a spokesman for the city’s electricity distributor said.

In the absence of attractive tariffs, these customers are increasingly disconnected from the network.

Read: Gosolr’s big plan to save South African homeowners from Eskom

“They are lost to the power system forever,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s much better to keep them online, to be part of a working network community.”

A fair feed-in tariff could encourage more South Africans to sign up and connect their systems and give Eskom some breathing room. But that likely will do little to overcome the main hurdle for most potential rooftop solar buyers: cost.

While banks are starting to help, with Absa and Nedbank offering dedicated small-scale solar products, rooftop systems remain out of reach for most poor South Africans like Prince Mkhize.

He works at a car wash in Alexandra, a low-income, high-crime town across a busy freeway from Sandton, Johannesburg’s financial district, dubbed “Africa’s richest square mile.”

When there’s a blackout, Mkhize can’t start his jet washer or vacuum and watches disappointed potential customers come and go. “We’ve been standing here for eight hours without cars,” he said. “If there is unloading, there is no work.” — Joe Bauer and Promeet Mukherjee, (c) 2022. Reuters

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