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Small business solar: practical and affordable in times of load-shedding

By Rein Snoeck Henkemans, Managing Director of Alumo Energy

South Africa relies heavily on the more than 2.4 million small, medium, and micro enterprises (SMMEs) that power the economy and provides for millions of families. Unfortunately, these are also the businesses often hit the hardest by instability in the energy sector.


The impact of loadshedding on these businesses is more serious than many know or realise. There have been around 1,600 hours of total load-shedding nationwide in the first quarter of this year alone. Last year’s total reached some 6,900 hours – nearly three times more than 2020 and 2021 combined.


As a result, businesses are increasingly being forced to work in the dark or lay down their tools. For example, the majority of township-based SMMEs typically stop operations altogether during load-shedding hours.


Even small businesses located in town centres find it difficult to operate. Some resort to battery-powered, low-energy, low-output lights that provide only limited visibility for workers, and UPS systems which are generally only able to support smaller devices. However, dark or dimly lit spaces discourage customers from entering, while most electrical commercial equipment becomes unusable.


On top of this, regular power disruptions can damage and break costly devices, or gradually reduce their total lifespan, as modern equipment is not generally built to withstand regular power cuts or the electrical surges that often happen when supply is restored.


Furthermore, power disruptions can lead to data loss on computers in offices and point of sale systems in stores, and Wi-Fi connections may drop, aggravating staff and customers alike. Additionally, vital security devices such as alarms and cameras may be rendered dysfunctional, leaving properties at risk.


Mitigating the impact of load-shedding


With the above in mind, many business owners have been forced to become more self-sufficient by investing in alternative energy solutions. But as the price of fuel remains prohibitive, not to mention the noise and fuel pollution resulting from generators, a hybrid alternative energy and grid energy approach is, ultimately, the quickest and most practical solution to resolve a business’ current and long-term energy challenges.


Plus, with the introduction of government’s Energy Bounce Back Loan Guarantee Scheme (EBB), vulnerable businesses can access competitive loans to install solar power generation solutions, reducing their up-front cost requirements. In addition, Alumo offers an affordable solar lease option which has proven extremely popular among business owners.


Moreover, beyond providing businesses with the peace of mind that comes with a regular, stable power supply, there is also a substantial cost-saving component to consider. A hybrid solar solution tailored to a business’ specific needs could result in cost-savings of as much as 75% on its monthly energy bill, while mitigating the impact of lost loadshedding time.


This makes a hybrid solar- and grid-supplied energy solution significantly less expensive than simply relying on the grid alone. That said, going 100% off-grid is exponentially more costly than implementing a hybrid solution because of the additional battery capacity required, which is why Alumo usually recommends going approximately 80% off-grid.


Pocket-friendly innovations tempting companies across the solar line


There are also a few notable innovations in the solar sector that are making solar even more attractive to SMMEs as long-term investments. For one, solar systems are increasingly moving away from less efficient low-voltage batteries in favour of mid- to high-voltage alternatives. These use less current to deliver the same amount of energy, improving the system’s overall energy transfer efficiency, and providing better value for the user.


Companies are further beginning to integrate smart battery management systems that make use of artificial intelligence (AI) tools to improve the performance and lifespan of batteries, reducing maintenance and replacement costs.


Finally, there is a push to introduce advanced AI-driven sensors that will continuously analyse and learn from the systems input and output data to better manage, for example, temperature, voltage, and current. These will likewise optimise system performance and maximise bang for buck.


Ultimately, hybrid solutions have become good business for businesses. And with the range of financing options available, the real question is not whether business owners can afford going solar, but whether they can afford not to.

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