Eskom Plans To Power SA Households With Micro-Grids Made Of Upcycled Shipping Containers

With nearly a third of the country not yet electrified, Eskom believes its containerised micro-grids – made of repurposed shipping containers – are an innovative way to solve for energy access, says its general manager for Just Energy Transition, Mandy Rambharos.
Rambharos and Eskom CEO André de Ruyter on Wednesday participated in the Africa Renewable Investments Summit, held in Cape Town.
As it prepares to decommission coal-fired power plants that reach their end of life, the embattled power utility is under pressure to achieve a just energy transition, and De Ruyter unpacked plans to achieve this. A key part of the strategy is the rollout of renewables to support jobs, especially after the decommissioning of power stations.
Apart from guarding against over 100 000 job losses in the coal value chain, the just energy transition should also address the persistent issue of energy poverty.
De Ruyter, in his address, indicated that many households still rely on coal for cooking and heat. This partly contributes to the 29 000 annual premature deaths attributed to air pollution.
Eskom’s solution to electrify homes, to meet their energy needs, is containerised micro-grids. This is a shipping container that has been repurposed to include batteries on the inside with solar panels on the outside.
The advantage is that the container can be trucked to the 30% of the country that is not yet electrified. These include remote areas where it is difficult to roll out grid infrastructure, Rambharos said.
Energy poverty or a lack of electricity access is a problem that persists in remote areas of the world. The 2022 Tracking SDG7: Tracking Energy Access Report shows that the Covid-19 pandemic slowed the growth rate at which people gained access to electricity.
For Sub-Saharan Africa, energy access was at around 48% in 2020. Globally, the region accounts for more than three quarters or 568-million of those without electricity access.
A container costs about R1.5 million, and Eskom would want this to be supported with grant funding. It has been running a pilot at Ficksburg in the Free State, and the plan is to take containerised micro-grids to nine regions. A micro-grid can electrify between 20 to 25 homes, Rambharos said.
The containers are assembled at Komati – the assembly line is one of the many initiatives to repurpose the coal-fired power station as its last unit is due for decommissioning by October. Eskom plans to repower the station with solar PV, wind and battery storage capacity. Eskom is of the view these interventions can help ensure job creation.
At its pilot in Ficksburg, Eskom has also explored the possibility of co-ownership by the community of the micro-grid.
“What that also helps with is security. Solar panels get stolen, unfortunately … Having co-ownership by communities not only empowers them to contribute to their own solution to electrification but also the solution around security and safety [of the asset].”
Rambharos said talks are under way with the National Energy Regulator of South Africa too on how to price the power for people to be able to afford to connect.
Eskom is not alone in tackling energy poverty with micro-grids.
Peco Power, a developer of electrification solutions which was born out of the Wits University School of Electrical and Information Engineering, has launched an off-grid solution known as the PowerBrick. Targeted at low-income households in rural and urban areas across southern Africa, the PowerBrick has been in development for seven years and makes use of solar and battery technologies.
It can provide power for lighting or 12-volt appliances. If coupled with an inverter, it could power 220-volt appliances such as fridges, computers, Wi-Fi routers and TVs.
Similarly to Eskom, Peco Power recognised it might not be economically viable to extend the grid in many rural areas, while at the same time, health and safety risks related to the use of paraffin, candles and wood for heating and lighting had to be addressed.
The smallest PowerBrick offering starts at a cost of R3 799, with the largest, nearly R8 000. These retail prices are targeted at middle-income consumers who could rely on the PowerBrick to get through load shedding, explained CEO Dorian Wrigley. “One of our small systems will keep cell phones charged, the Wi-Fi router on, and a computer powered for two to three hours of load shedding.”
Peco Power wants to get funding partners such as Development Finance Institutions, donors and corporates on board to help support a rent-to-own model for low-income households. With funders on board, the bricks could be made available at between $7.50 to $12 (~R130 to ~R220) per month.
Wrigley shared that both the PowerBrick and its components are sourced and manufactured locally. In the case where a component, like a microprocessor, can’t be manufactured locally, then local suppliers secure these from international suppliers. All the assembly and manufacturing takes place locally.
There is also an employment creation opportunity. For every 100 to 200 households who acquire a PowerBrick on a rent-to-own basis, there will be a Peco Power franchisee who benefits from providing support services.”We could create one million sustainable jobs across the continent, while transforming the lives of 600 million people living in un-electrified homes,” said Wrigley.
Indirectly, the provision of cheap, clean power to communities can also support creativity and productivity which will result in multiple more job opportunities, Wrigley added.
Peco Power’s modelling shows a $600-million (R10.7-billion) investment could power 13-million un-electrified homes in southern Africa over 10 years. It would lead to six production facilities being set up and could provide over 55 000 direct jobs, said Wrigley.