Why universities should join forces to thrive, notwithstanding loadshedding

Published On: 24 July 2023|

One mechanism universities could use to offset loadshedding is to coordinate a combined tender for the purchase of solar panels and batteries.

Dr Lawrence Pratt, Principal Researcher of Solar Photovoltaics (PV) at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) made this suggestion at the Universities South Africa (USAf)-led Loadshedding Webinar on Friday, 21 July.  This webinar was convened by USAf’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group to mitigate the impact of the rolling power cuts on institutions.

Coordinating procurement, Dr Pratt suggested, would see universities combining strengths, thus opening lots of opportunities. If all universities in one province joined forces over one tender for equipment, some form of standardisation within campuses would be achieved – which would “make a lot of sense’’, he said. He mentioned a challenge faced by the CSIR, caused by five different systems with 20 different components, which made it difficult to coordinate.

A bigger, higher budget tender stood to make the procurement process more efficient, generating better value at a possible lower cost because of economies of scale, Dr Pratt added, also making it easier to deploy the maintenance expertise to site.  He cited the Western Cape Department of Health, with one monitoring system from one supplier across their health facilities. This allowed one to look at any facility and any sub-metre within it on one platform, which helped evaluation.

Dr Pratt’s suggestion of a combined tender was part of his response to a question from two University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) representatives at the webinar. 

Mr Gishore Gobardan, Executive Director of Institutional Planning and Governance and a session chair at the webinar, asked Pratt to touch on some of the challenges of installing energy equipment in different buildings and on different campuses. “Having been dealing with this for the last couple of months at UKZN, we have been finding the configuration is not a one-size-fits-all,” he said.

His colleague, Mr Ajesh Aheer, Sustainability and Utilities Senior Manager at the university, elaborated: “We have had challenges in terms of integrating inverter and battery systems. We’ve had to assess key areas where we could locate these pieces of equipment to perhaps apply it from a central location rather than each individual lecture room or venue. It’s been taking quite a lot of time to get that assessment done. We could have just put in multiple systems per room, per building, and gotten away with that. But it comes down to the cost of optimising the whole application.” 

The rest of Dr Pratt’s response to these questions related to connection points. He asked whether UKZN was putting these PV systems on the ground or on the roof. If on the roof, was it a pitched or flat roof? “What’s your electrical connection point? It’s important to get the interfaces between the company that’s going to install the system and your infrastructure right.  The PV systems are quite robust and reliable on their own,but theelectrical point of connection is critical,” he said.

What happens if Eskom performs and loadshedding stops?

Considering the number of emerging questions, the Q&A session, initially scheduled for five minutes, got extended for an additional 35 minutes – a demonstration of how important Pratt’s presentation had been — Mr Mahlubi Mabizela, USAf’s Director of Operations and Sector Support, said.

Mabizela asked two questions in the session. “Let’s say Eskom becomes normal, that is, providing electricity 365 days a year.  Wouldn’t this investment or some of it become obsolete?” he asked. His second question referred to Pratt’s comment in his presentation that all the equipment needed tender loving care. “Because they are high maintenance, are these systems really cost effective?”

Pratt said a PV grid-tied system based on solar panels has a 25-year lifetime. “If the grid goes back to normal, and this is still a grid-tied or a hybrid system, the PV panels are going to continue to save you money. So, that investment is not going to become obsolete. You will have to maintain and replace inverters with some frequency, maybe two or three times over the lifetime of the panel, but you will still recover the costs.

“If we woke up tomorrow and there was no more load shedding, you might be sitting with a bunch of batteries.  However, the batteries can be managed in a way to discharge during peak time-of-use tariff. So, if you’re on a time-of-use schedule where you’re paying four or five bucks a kilowatt hour in the early mornings and late afternoons, you use your PV to charge the batteries and you discharge them during those periods to reduce your electricity bill, and then you can recover some, if not all, of the cost of the batteries.

“The batteries also have a natural lifetime. And there’s a lot of debate about what that lifetime is. In my view, it has a lot to do with how they’re being controlled. But just for the sake of argument, the batteries are going to be replaced somewhere between every five and 10 years. If you invest in a bunch of batteries now to help with loadshedding, and you find that in five years’ time Eskom is back to 100% service, your batteries have reached end-of-life anyway. So, they’ve served their purpose and now it becomes a disposal issue but not a loss, not a wasted expense.”

Regarding maintenance, he said rooftop PV systems are fairly low maintenance and might need to be cleaned a few times a year depending on the frequency of rain in the area.

Hiring generators adds to their cost

Mr Nadeem Gafieldien, Director of Property Services at the University of Stellenbosch and immediate past president at Higher Education Facilities Management Association of Southern Africa (Hefma), said many generators in use at universities had been installed a while ago as emergency back-up and were starting to fail. Institutions were now forced to hire generators, which added to their expense, or to switch them off completely. “And that actually threatens the core business, which is the teaching and learning.”

While there was already a disconnect between understanding these types of problems and presenting them to the executive to start implementing solutions, Gafieldien also mentioned that universities lagged, regarding the metering and monitoring of energy use. Although more resourced institutions were better placed to address this, even they had “splintered solutions”, he said.

“One needs to get the conversation going with the executive and the infrastructure teams about long-term solutions for institutions, including lowering our carbon footprint,” said Gafieldien.

Pratt: “This is not at all an area of expertise for me, but I have heard similar stories where you’re trying to run the generator, and the PV and the batteries at the same time, and the generator is not running at full capacity. Maybe that’s hard on the generator and they fail earlier. But I don’t know.”

Equipment takes a walk

Professor Prakash Naidoo, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Operations at the University of the Free State said Pratt had presented great solutions “but as institutions, some of us are buckling under the cost. Also, the CSIR may not have this issue, but we have abuse mainly from students with regard to what we install, and these little units grow legs and take a walk. This impacts on other costs such as security cameras.  What is the experience of other universities?”

He recommended a more forceful representation by USAf to the Minister because they could not make these interventions without government’s financial support.

Finding the right inverter

Mr Sebastian George, Senior Engineering Manager at the University of Pretoria, said he

found the “Archilles heel in the whole system” to be the inverters.  His challenge was finding an inverter that can facilitate integration into a very large system of 500 kilowatts system upwards, and that could then facilitate the coordination between diesel generators, PV and other power sources. “Is there a forum or is there a centralised point where specifically very large inverters are being discussed, are being reviewed, their capabilities addressed, especially around the capabilities of paralleling these inverters in order to achieve higher ratings?”

Pratt: “I think inverters are sort of a weak point. There are a lot of moving parts, and they can fail. And when they fail, they can be very difficult to replace, particularly in public institutions where we must go through quite a bit of procurement.

“We do have an example of a large inverter on our campus: our single axis tracker is a 550-kilowatt system. And it’s connected to eight different string inverters, which are then combined into a transformer. It feeds five buildings on the campus.

“To find out more, PVEL inverters’ scorecard might be a place to start. PVEL is a test lab in California in the US. They put out an annual report on PV module quality where they rank PV modules on the market. They have a similar report card for inverters.”

Mr Lubabalo Bambeni said he was happy to see a presentation of the identical system they had installed at Walter Sisulu University’s Potsdam campus four months ago. He wondered how they could now develop their project further.

Professor Ian Lazarus, Manager of the KZN Industrial Energy Efficient Training and Resource (IEETR) Centre, also known as the DUT Energy Technology Station at the Durban University of Technology (DUT), said they had invested in reducing their energy consumption over years.

“Our centre is involved with energy auditing, energy management and photovoltaic systems and we also have a training centre. Universities have to see what their specific needs are. So, we focused on putting a 110-kilowatt rooftop project on our library roof, which runs over 100 computers and lights. That was a hybrid system with PV and backup. We completed that a few years ago.

“We now are working ona 200-kilowatt system that will be PV together with our diesel generators.”

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.