Eskom microgrid plan goes dark

Eskom has gone quiet on its plan to roll out dozens of microgrids across South Africa by the end of March 2024.

Microgrids are containerised electricity generation and distribution systems for small and remote communities which are difficult or expensive to reach with conventional transmission networks.

Eskom’s distribution division launched one of its first microgrids in Swartkopdam in the Northern Cape in July 2023. The deployable system provides complete off-grid electricity to 39 households that previously had no power.

Eskom explained that microgrids provided an effective, reliable, and easily deployable solution for electrifying geographically challenging areas.

“The electricity networks around the area are constrained and practically impossible to extend and connect the area,” Eskom said.

It had considered a conventional solution to connect Swartkopdam to the national grid by building a 200km 132kV line from Gordonia substation and establishing a substation at Noenieput.

This would have carried an estimated cost of R250 million, or R6.41 million per household. “This option was considered extremely expensive and was, therefore, not pursued,” Eskom said.

“The microgrid with battery energy storage capability developed by Eskom Research, Testing, and Development was considered the most suitable solution,” the utility said.

The Swartkopdam site consists of two containerised microgrids — one with 32kWp and a second with 60kWp solar PV capacity — capable of supporting 64kWh or 120kWh of power.

The rollout of the Swartkopdam system followed two pilot projects at Lynedoch in the Western Cape and Ficksburg in the Free State.

Eskom told Engineering News that the high solar irradiation in these areas offered an average of 10 hours of sunlight per day, sufficient to keep battery levels high enough to meet demand 24/7.

Photo of Ficksburg microgrid with system specifications.

According to Eskom group executive for distribution Mondle Bala, these three projects were just the first of many more microgrids to be rolled out by the end of Eskom’s last financial year,

“The deployment of the microgrids at Swartkopdam serves as a proof of concept for installing microgrids in remote areas that are difficult to reach or expensive to electrify through conventional means of electrification.”

“Eskom plans to roll out about 100 microgrids across the country by the end of March 2024 as part of the Distribution business strategy,” Bala said in July 2023.

“We will continue to close the gap of energy poverty by giving everyone a life-changing experience of having electricity.”

MyBroadband asked Eskom for a progress update on the microgrid rollout, but despite more than a week of follow-ups, the utility had not responded to our queries.

The microgrids form part of Eskom’s Just Energy Transition (JET) projects, as they also contribute to reducing carbon emissions by relying on renewable power.

It is interesting to note that JET was one of the key focus areas of former Eskom CEO André de Ruyter, who left the utility about four months before the completion of the microgrid in Swartkopdam.

Eskom has also been coy about the cost of the microgrids, but these are presumed to be substantially less costly than expanding transmission capacity to reach targeted communities.

The cost is being carried with a part of the $11.6 billion (R210.35 billion) in funding from developed countries, including Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States, to help Eskom transition away from fossil fuel-based generation.

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Eskom microgrid plan goes dark