Wits University collaboration takes solar power to shack dwellers
Wits University has collaborated with the Gauteng Research Triangle to launch a pilot project looking at the viability of taking solar power to informal settlements.
The project kicked off with the installation of Pecogrid solar systems at numerous houses in Kirkney, Pretoria West, on Wednesday. This is done using the Pecogrid power grid.
The university explained that the project was developed by Prof Willie Cronje of the Wits school of electrical and information engineering and “aims to look at the viability of installing small microgrids into informal communities to assist in providing energy to these communities, while it may at the same time act as an income generator for individuals”.
It was launched after a recent Daily Maverick opinion piece by professor of urban governance at the Wits School of Governance, David Everatt, and pro-vice chancellor for climate, sustainability and inequality Prof Imraan Valodia.
The duo argued that because of enlightened self-interest “solar power in these communities could provide dwellings with power, while at the same time produce a source of revenue for house owners if the power is sold back to the grid.
“As these households are not connected to the grid at the moment, local government will not lose any revenue should these communities — who desperately need energy — be connected to solar power,” Everatt explained.
“So if they are connected with solar energy and have excess energy that they can sell to local government for cash, they will not only have energy but will earn a much-needed income — a win-win for everybody.”
Wednesday's pilot study saw technicians from Lightec installing the Pecogrid systems, which both consisted of a portable Peco-brick — a 200-watt inverter unit, connected to a 500 watt/hour lithium-ion battery — connected to a 160-watt solar panel.
One of the systems was connected to the Eskom grid, while the other was off-grid.
The university explained that a typical single-brick power system can power the lights in an informal dwelling and charge a cellphone.
We put a lot of effort in making the technology as simple as possible so you don’t need a professional electrician to install itProf Willie Cronje
Additional batteries or power-bricks can be added to increase capacity to power additionally a television and even a fridge.
“The whole system is based on ‘plug-and-play’ technology, where you can buy the equipment at a vendor, go home, connect the wires to the solar panel and you’re done,” said Cronje, who spent the past 10 years developing the system.
“We put a lot of effort in making the technology as simple as possible so you don’t need a professional electrician to install it.”
Adding to this was Lightec CEO Mario Roos, who said: “The system is modular, so you can add further capacity as your circumstances changes. Even if you’re moving into a formal housing structure, you can unclip the panel from the roof, take your little portable unit with you and connect it to your new house.”
Everatt said the pilot study would run for six months to a year to see whether the system could be used safely and sustainably, and whether it added to the quality of life and economical livelihoods of communities.
“The proof of concept is to see whether it generates excess power once the household has used what they need. The excess power can be used by the whole community to charge their cellphones.”
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