Going solo with solar – shedding light on Victoria Yards

Going solo with solar – shedding light on Victoria Yards

Aerial view of Victoria Yards, where a solar battery hybrid system will cover all of the site’s core electricity requirements.

The relentless hammering that South Africans endured during the recent phase of stage four load shedding has local businesses eyeing solar photovoltaic (PV) installations as a potential way to safeguard business continuity in the face of Eskom’s power supply issues.

Unfortunately, solar on its own doesn’t protect against load shedding without the inclusion of substantial battery storage and few business owners are in a position to fund the capital expenditure required just yet. But what if there were no other options and going off the grid with solar was already an absolute necessity? An innovative new urban complex on the outskirts of Johannesburg’s CBD will soon have solar energy as its primary source of power – and the lessons learned there may prove invaluable.

Victoria Yards is an urban development in Lorentzville, a suburb that is currently undergoing community-centred rejuvenation by developers who are recognising its potential as an inner-city ‘oasis’. Originally a cluster of derelict industrial buildings, Victoria Yards has been developed into a sustainable complex that houses an eclectic mix of designers, artists and restaurants. The developers include Group 44, the team behind the trendy 44 Stanley development in Milpark.

Reliable power supply, however, has been a struggle for the Victoria Yards development from the outset. The history of the site, with numerous different stands, vandalised systems, and a historic dispute with the Council over the estimated value of arrears supply has made it difficult for the development to secure a reliable grid connection from City Power. This was in addition to load shedding and system failures in the area.

Victoria Yards has been forced to run a diesel generator as its sole source of power, at huge expense, for some extended period. In response, Group 44 has called in SolarSaver, an innovative solar solutions group backed by the Pembani-Remgro Infrastructure Fund.

“We were very excited to be given the opportunity to work with Victoria Yards as it is such a unique property. In response to their challenges, we have designed a solar battery hybrid system that will cover all of the site’s core electricity requirements,” says Stuart Batchelor, technical director at SolarSaver.

“The system will not only provide Victoria Yards with a stable electricity supply, but will also extend the development’s eco-friendly footprint, a green effort that already includes community vegetable gardens, recycling plants and organic composting heaps.”

Currently, solar energy works well for many businesses via a grid-tied solution that focuses on daytime power generation, in an effort to reduce monthly electricity costs. But Victoria Yards has no connection to the grid, so a grid-tied solution is not feasible.

“Our comprehensive solution includes 414 solar modules and a 100kW battery inverter tied to 200kWh of battery storage. This system will be capable of taking the site completely off-the-grid, providing Victoria Yards with silent and sustainable electricity on a 24/7 basis,” says Batchelor.

The system is being installed under SolarSaver’s fully-financed rent-to-own offering, meaning Victoria Yards does not have to fund any of the capital required. Instead, Victoria Yards will rent the system from SolarSaver and will only pay for the electricity the system provides – at rates which are almost exactly in line with what City Power would charge for the equivalent grid supply.

The net result is that Victoria Yards will no longer have to pay for expensive diesel generation and its tenants can operate with the comfort of knowing that they aren’t subject to the whims of Eskom’s load-shedding schedules. SolarSaver will also remain responsible for all ongoing installation, monitoring, maintenance and insurance of the system.

Batchelor explains that the Victoria Yards project is a milestone project for SolarSaver: “Up to now, all of our rent-to-own installations in South Africa have been grid-tied, meaning they can’t operate during periods of load shedding. We’ve commissioned a number of off-grid systems in Namibia, but this is the first time we’re offering that sort of solution to a business in South Africa. As battery systems become more cost-effective, we’re aiming to update all of our systems to include batteries, with the long-term goal of providing our clients with 24-hour capex-free, hassle-free power solutions.”

While Victoria Yards is an exciting project for both SolarSaver and its client, it has proven to be more complex than most.

“The building is an extremely old heritage site with timber beams. The beams and roof sheeting had to be replaced in certain areas, but there were limitations to what we could strengthen or replace due to the building’s heritage status and aesthetics,” says Batchelor.

“The solar solution for Victoria Yards thus had to be distinct, from the initial design through to the installation process. Yet despite these challenges, the installation will be completed over only one month, with completion scheduled for mid-May.

Batchelor concludes: “The Victoria Yards project has been invaluable to SolarSaver in helping us to refine our off-grid offering and we’ve decided to share those learnings by making the entire solar design, including all calculations and technical drawings, available to Engineers Without Borders (EWB) to help educate future engineers. We’re also working with the EWB to develop student projects around future system design enhancements or upgrades, and ways to integrate the system with the local community.”

It’s still early days on the road to finding cost-effective alternatives to grid electricity supply from Eskom, but projects like the one at Victoria Yards provide an opportunity for business owners to see what other options will potentially be available to them in future.