Take that load! Solar power now lights up these towns

Henry

Four villages in the Eastern Free State are very close to being completely without load shedding, thanks to cooperation between the community and the private energy distributor Rural Free State (RFS).

Three solar farms, with a generation capacity of between 480 KVA and 4,200 KVA now supply power to Frankfort, Villiers and Tweeling.

Parts of Frankfort have had only one day of load shedding since November 7 and March 1.

“The effects on smaller businesses in particular are enormous and they can work at full steam again,” says Jacques Jansen van Vuuren, manager of the Mafube business forum which is involved in the project.

‘We will ourselves’

Residents say that in 2012, Frankfort’s power distribution network was literally hanging in tatters.

According to Hans Pretorius, chairman of the Mafube First community organization, which is registered to participate in local elections, charged power lines lay on the ground.

“Not only was our power grid life-threatening, but we also had to do without any electricity for days on end,” says Pretorius.

In addition, the municipality’s debt to Eskom had accumulated to such an extent that the national power supplier no longer wanted to supply electricity to the town at all.

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Rural Free State, a private company, then intervened and in 2012 took over electricity management from the Mafube municipality in terms of a 25-year contract. Mafube includes the towns of Frankfort, Villiers, Tweeling and Cornelia.

According to Gouws Marais, RFS project manager, the company has since spent around R120 million to fix power distribution networks and raised a further R3.2 million to build their offices, which are located right next to the town’s Eskom substation. This building will be handed over to the municipality after the expiry of the contract. Royalties for the use of the distribution network are also paid to the municipality and to date more than R25 million has already been paid.

Over the years, the company has managed to reduce electricity losses, whether through default, theft or technical losses, from around 50% to 5%.

In addition, RFS has started collecting power debt and the company maintains a payment rate of more than 95%. This despite great poverty among many residents.

According to Gouws, RFS has taken over 14 staff from the municipality’s electricity department and these days more than 40 permanent workers are employed by the company.

Despite these victories, it became clear in 2017 that load shedding was going to remain a permanent headache.

Farmers and business owners approached RFS to set up solar farms in Frankfort, Tweeling and Villiers.

This partnership led to the creation of FF Renewables (FFR), a private company with shareholders from the local community that set up the three solar farms. RFS buys solar power from FFR at rates approved by Nersa.

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Together, the farms produce around 5,720 KW of power.

RFS also makes use of “deployable energy”. These are energy sources that do not come from Eskom and are used on demand to supplement power shortages, such as during load shedding. Currently, RFS makes up the shortfall with a combination of electricity it generates through solar power and stores in batteries, as well as power generated by diesel generators.

In February 2023, RFS agreed with Eskom to apply load shedding itself in Frankfort and later also Villiers. RFS may under no circumstances apply more or less load shedding than is introduced by Eskom.

“Since then, all the sewage treatment works and water pumps have been constantly supplied with power. There is also much less theft of infrastructure, because there is continuous power supply,” says Gouws.

Regarding the complete end of load shedding, RFS started with a practice run in Frankfort’s business area to systematically relieve certain consumers from load shedding. When the trial run was successful, RFS expanded it to other parts of the town, mainly residential areas. RFS is full of confidence that the whole of Frankfort can be load-shedding free by the end of the year and will also roll it out further in Villiers, Tweeling and Cornelia.

Heidi du Plooy, longtime resident and owner of Von Krotz Kennels in Frankfort, is confident that RFS will deliver on its promise.

“If it wasn’t for RFS, this town of ours would have stopped doing business years ago. They are the reason why we still have high property value and have continuous service delivery in terms of power,” says Du Plooy.

Jannie Schabort, Mafube business forum, for his part hopes that RFS’s plans can become an example for other towns to provide their own power.

“If we win here, it will be a win for South Africa.

  • Neither the Mafube municipality nor its municipal manager responded to any requests for comment.