Big win for Free State town that battled Eskom over solar power plant

A privately-run power distributor providing electricity to three small towns in the Free State has significantly reduced load-shedding implemented against its customers over the past year.

The company — Rural Maintenance’s Rural Free State (RFS) — has told MyBroadband it had constructive discussions with Eskom since a court order prevented it from implementing load-shedding “voiding” in Frankfort roughly a year ago.

RFS was appointed Mafube Municipality’s power distributor and infrastructure maintainer in 2012.

For several years, it has been supplementing the town’s power with its own large solar farm and other plants in the community, offering residents and businesses cheaper electricity tariffs.

It ran into trouble with Eskom for reducing Frankfort’s load-shedding schedule during times of the day when its 3.7MWp solar plant had sufficient supply to meet demand.

Eskom argued that the solar power plant was not a dispatchable power source,  formed part of the town’s regular load profile and could not be used to avoid load-shedding altogether at any time.

While Rural Maintenance was waiting for the outcome of a dispute lodged with Nersa over the issue, it approached the Johannesburg High Court to prevent Eskom from taking control of its operations in Frankfort.

The high court ruled in Eskom’s favour, based not on a lack of merit in Rural Maintenance’s arguments, but on the Mafube Municipality failing or declining to provide an affidavit stating Rural Maintenance could litigate on its behalf.

RFS explained that Frankfort had two sources of electricity — Eskom’s grid and its local small-scale embedded generation.

It is fighting for the town to only be exempt from load-shedding when the embedded generation is sufficient to meet its demand.

“Usually, towns like Frankfort only have one source of supply, and that was Eskom,” explained Rural Free State.

“When evaluating the load of the town, Eskom uses their bulk meter and applies the load-shedding program from there.”

“Today, there are multiple sources of supply, so the load-shedding requirements should be adjusted to not penalise the community for taking the initiative and introducing new generation capacity.”

The RFS solar power plant providing electricity to the Mafube Municipality. Credit: CNES/Airbus, Maxar Technologies via Google Earth

Eskom agrees to compromise

RFS said following meetings with Eskom, the utility accepted that load-shedding was not required when Frankfort was not receiving any power from Eskom at the time.

“The System Operator feels this is a mechanism that does not negatively impact the national grid,” Rural Free State said.

In addition to the alternative voiding mechanism, RFS has also introduced its own voluntary load curtailment programme that exempts some industrial, business, and residential customers of Frankfort and Villiers from load-shedding.

In Frankfort, 45.21% of customers use the mechanism, while 23.5% of its customers in Villiers have also signed up for the programme.

These customers benefit from backup power provided by stored battery energy and diesel-powered generators during load-shedding. This is employed outside the hours when RFS’s private solar production is insufficient to meet demand.

RFS has commissioned a further 1.6MVA of capacity for the programme.

“The plan is to have everyone who wants to be on curtailment, on curtailment by the end of the year,” RFS said.

No excess electricity sales — for now

Eskom previously said that RFS could apply to sell its excess solar energy back to the grid.

RFS told MyBroadband the power utility rejected its proposal because the surplus energy provided by the community’s farms supplying RFS did not follow a regular pattern.

Fortunately, the alternative voiding programme has prevented excess solar generation from going to waste during load-shedding.

RFS is nonetheless hopeful that a new agreement discussed with Eskom in April 2024 could lead to a solution for any excess energy, including supply to neighbouring communities.

A major new goal for RFS is to help local farmers use renewable energy to cultivate high-value crops for export.

“By growing, harvesting and processing these crops under controlled conditions within the Mafube Local Municipality, much-needed local jobs can be created,” the company said.

“We hope that the municipality and province will adopt a policy to engage with us.”

Solar farm and new hydroponics facility being constructed in Villiers alongside conventional pivot points. The construction of the crop grower’s top structure is set to commence at the end of May 2024.

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Big win for Free State town that battled Eskom over solar power plant