About three years ago former SABC television technical director Chris Prins moved to his 25ha property near Langebaan on the Cape West Coast.
There were no buildings on the property and Prins started making enquiries about a connection to the Eskom grid before he started building his new house.
The connection fee of R27 000 and monthly fixed fee of R1 000 thereafter sounded a bit steep. Usage would be charged at about R1/kWh.
Prins then embarked on a journey that now has him smiling when the rest of the country bears the brunt of load shedding.
He didn’t know anything about the subject, but started researching renewable energy. “At first I considered wind power, because we have a lot on wind on the West Coast. Friends told me to speak to farmers in Langkloof who had tried it. I made a few phone calls and they told me the bearings of those turbines last hardly two years.
“I’m no mechanic, so I changed my focus to solar power,” he explains.
He learnt that one needs solar panels, batteries, an inverter and a controller. The sizes and cost of solar panels differ and there are big quality variations among batteries, he says.
After six months’ research he settled for two 12 litre gas geysers for the two bathrooms, one 8 litre gas geyser for the kitchen and solar panels and batteries to power the rest of the house.
He now uses about R1 000 worth of gas in five months.
“My initial investment in solar power was R90 000, but I quickly added to the battery capacity and in the end spent R120 000.” That excludes the costs for the gas geysers and stove.
The system consists of 15 solar panels of 210W each and 18 batteries delivering a total of 48V (220V after being inverted). He also added a 4kW diesel generator for support when the sun doesn’t shine for two consecutive days.
“I run it for about an hour to recharge the batteries and then I have enough power for a whole day.” The generator runs on about 1 litre of diesel per hour.
With this system he is independent of any power supplier. His two fridge/freezers run all the time, as does the 370W borehole pump 200m from the house. His 20 000 litre water tanks supply enough water for the house. He watches television, uses hair dryers and vacuum cleaners as in any other household.
“When we have guests we ask them not to use hair dryers before 9:00 when the sun is shining. They can really tap the batteries.”
Prins does, however, not have a washing machine but rather drops off his washing at the local laundry. “I would have been able to run a washing machine, but would have to do it between 11:00 and 14:00 when the sun is at its best.”
He has a few olive trees and sheep and plans to grow vegetables in tunnels when he retires. His electricity system will support that adequately.
While hail is rare on the West Coast, Prins admits that they have had some hail. The stones were small and did not damage the panels. “Apart from that, the birds sometimes leave their droppings on the panels. It does not affect the efficiency of the system and you just get onto the roof once a year and clean it with a squeegee.”
He has recovered the R120 000 in three years, which means his electricity is free of charge thereafter. (Neighbours pay Eskom an average of R3 500 –R4 000 per month).
After seven-and-a-half years he has to replace the batteries and after 12 years the panels. He has taken that into account and has made provision for that amount, including escalation.
Prins appointed one of the bigger market players to install his solar system. “These days there are many companies who jumped onto the bandwagon. Rather use one of the bigger, well-established companies.”
He advises consumers to get quotes from at least four different suppliers. “They have to come to your premises to assess your specific needs and look at the local conditions. The panels have to face north-east.”
And be sure to get good quality batteries. “Google them. There are batteries and batteries. Ask about the number of cycles before the batteries are depleted. The higher the number, the better.”
How does being independent from the grid make him feel? “It’s so nice. Sometimes I watch television and see the calls to switch off non-essential appliances and preserve electricity. Then I just laugh. It does not affect me.”