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Tackling the energy crisis with new business solutions

There is a huge business opportunity for small to medium businesses to help solve the country’s energy crisis, writes ROBIN MELVILLE, product manager for sustainable energy at Mustek

During stage four load shedding, the power grid goes off for around two hours at a time, up to three times during the day – usually in the morning, afternoon and evening. While any period without power is challenging, the morning and afternoon blackouts can be particularly problematic for businesses, self-employed individuals and those who work from home, who could potentially lose up to fi ve hours of work during the day. If you take into consideration that an average work day is eight hours, including lunch, these outages can cause irreparable damage to the economy and people’s livelihoods.

Clearly, we need to wean as many entities as possible off the Eskom grid, starting with businesses. South Africa’s future lies in private power generation. The good news is that our country is rich in sunshine throughout the year, meaning that renewable energy is viable. Considering that some statistics indicate most areas of the country average more than 2 500 hours of sunshine per year, solar installations as a means to cut down on electrical usage seem the obvious choice.

Remember that a solar solution can start small: Modems, pool pumps, geysers, borehole water pumps, lighting, water heating and cooking are all options that can be easily and cost effectively powered by solar. More importantly, in a country beset by job-creation challenges, there is huge potential for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to set themselves up as solar installation services.

The next big thing

If you are an entrepreneur seeking the big business next opportunity, this is an industry you need to consider seriously. Remember that grid-supplied electricity is only going to become more and more expensive (and possibly erratic) as we move forward. Obviously, entrepreneurs should research the industry fi rst and look for gaps in the market. Solar panels, inverters and batteries constitute the basics, but there is a lot of competition in this space. However, the shift from being seen as a technology only for “wealthy” people is quite pronounced, as the current energy crisis will likely drive more middle- and lower-income people to do the same.

Large-scale projects – those requiring anywhere from 250 kilowatts (kW) to a megawatt or more – demand extensive engineering, large capital costs and external funding. However, the growth of independent power producers (IPPs) has created a gap at the smaller end of the market, and SMEs should move quickly to take advantage of the growth in clients.

There are huge opportunities to be had in delivering renewable solar solutions to smaller businesses: those that require in the region of 30–90kW systems for offi ces, mini-factories and offi ce blocks. It is important to help them understand that these solutions save so much energy that it affects more than just the bottom line.

Scaling up

Of course, how these small solutions scale is a critical question for SMEs in construction, infrastructure and manufacturing. Many of
the most successful small-scale solutions are those that can be built using low-power circuits, and which are cheap to scale up. Clients save money on time-consuming building, while also receiving the personalised service for which SMEs are renowned.

Small-scale equipment is usually designed to be scalable as the initial requirements alter. This offers SME installers the opportunity to grow their solar implementations as their clients themselves expand in size. Ultimately, this means they benefi t from building relationships with repeat customers. Meanwhile, small fi rms of consulting engineers will be in a position to add to the value chain whenever these clients begin to grow.

Everyone will agree that Eskom power utility cannot manage the country’s electrical demand alone; it needs IPPs as well. There
is thus enormous potential for SMEs across the value chain to benefi t signifi cantly from the growing demand for sustainable and renewable energy solutions.

Small-scale equipment is usually designed to be scalable as the initial requirements alter. This offers SME installers the opportunity to grow their solar implementations as their clients themselves expand in size.

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