So what is smarter living all about?


In the USA, “Smart Homes” are all about convenience and consumption.  In South Africa (and much of Europe) there is a far greater focus on sustainability and renewable energy… on being greener.

CapeInfo set out to discover the feasibility — and economic realities — of going off the grid.  Is saying goodbye to Eskom (SA’s power utility) an easy and affordable transition?  We’re starting with the basics to see how cheaply one can live off the grid and then expanding capacity to cater for all the normal household items… and winter.  We look forward to your comments and suggestions as the project unfolds over the coming months.

SA’s electricity monopoly was totally mismanaged by Eskom and government during two decades of poor planning.  Electricity supply has been unreliable with frequent outages and the consumer is being forced to pay for this mismanagement — electricity costs have skyrocketed and will increase in the future. Not that long ago, SA had the cheapest electricity in the world!

President Jacob Zuma is hell bent on a 9,600 MW nuclear power programme which the country cannot afford.  When will it start?  No-one knows.  When will it be completed?  That will be wishful thinking!  It’s a project that reeks of political patronage and insider benefits.

India... holding the sun

Price history of silicon PV cells since 1977. The great thing about solar power is that it is a technology and not a fuel. It is unlimited and the more it is deployed the cheaper it would be.  Prices are currently dropping by 10% a year.
The great thing about solar power is that it is a technology and not a fuel. It is unlimited and the more it is deployed the cheaper it will be. Prices are currently dropping by 10% a year.

India, by comparison, will be adding 2,000 MW of solar power between January and March this year, equal to the total capacity added during 2015.  India plans to add 12,000 MW in the coming year, and increase its solar installations from below 5 GW now to 100 GW by 2022… making SA’s nuclear programme insignificant by comparison.  And that’s all real, not Zuma’s fantasies and (potentially) disastrous legacy.

And what’s also real is that demand for Eskom’s electricity has been dropping.  Industrial demand has dropped as the economy has faltered, but more and more businesses and homes have started generating their own solar power.  Are you one of them or how many people do you know who are generating their own power?

How this project started

In 2014, with a laptop battery that had seen better days and while travelling a lot, I went to find out how easy it would be to use a solar panel for recharging.  The cheapest option was almost R5000 and I was advised that a small portable generator would be a better idea.  End of that bright idea!

Two stories written at the beginning of 2015 piqued my interest in innovation again — Hotel Verde — Africa’s Greenest Hotel and An Eskom-free, oil company-free, green future. I’ve seen the future!   The concept of disruptive technologies is appealing because they will facilitate the changes we need to change the status quo.  What Hotel Verde shows is that lifestyle and mindset are essential components of going green — it’s not about tacking on technology and putting on a green badge.

Then on one of 2015’s big trips around South Africa,  I was invited to Tugela River Lodge in the northern Drakensberg area of KwaZulu-Natal.  I looked at their website and saw that they are off-the-grid.  “So how do I use my laptop, recharge my phone and camera,” I asked.  They said they could run the generator for a few hours every day.  That seemed a bit over the top.

I was in Howick when that conversation took place and on my way back to the car after photographing the waterfall, I saw a sign on the pavement advertising solar solutions for under R999.  Ah ha!  That got me into the shop where I discovered that to meet my needs, I would need to spend R2,600 — too much to spend without any proper research and planning, and which could be a waste after leaving the Lodge.

Bakkie inverter
The inverter connected to the bakkie’s battery

But I did walk out with a 300 Watt inverter which cost about R350.  And I didn’t have to use the Lodge’s generator at all.  Using my bakkie’s battery, I had more than enough power for the laptop, cellphone and camera.  And I also used one of the Lodge’s spare batteries for another four days — without seemingly making any dent into the battery’s capacity.  And that got me thinking… is solar really as expensive as many make it out to be.

Something I saw all over the northern Drakensberg was the provision of solar panels to low cost and informal dwellings.  Doesn’t this make more sense?  How can government and local authorities provide Eskom connections to people who can’t afford to pay for electricity?  (Will Soweto’s R4 billion debt to Eskom ever be paid?)  Surely providing Eskom connections to poor communities just makes politicians look good at the expense of the people?

And then in the middle of 2015 I stayed at Jenny Uys’ remarkable and highly recommended Klipfontein Keep between Bredasdorp and Cape Agulhas.  I also visited her first venture into hospitality at Langrug Lodge and learned how in demand it is — because it is off-the-grid, because it offers a special lifestyle.  Whenever I see an accommodation establishment offering a “home away from home,”  I think how wrong they’re getting it.  Don’t people travel to experience something new and different.  A home away from home means the host or hostess isn’t trying hard enough or has no creativity.

So… whether one is going green or is pursuing a more rational economic option, lifestyle choices come to the fore if you’re not just throwing money at new solutions.

And how it became a bigger project

It’s not just about electricity or hot water from the sun.  When there was a delay in getting water to the Smarter Living cottage because a newly-planted olive vineyard had priority, I discovered what is an everyday reality for many SA households — carrying water.  I realised that electricity shortages are solely due to government’s mismanagement of the energy sector — it is not a precious commodity — but water is.

Accommodation establishments that use solar water heaters to demonstrate their greenness completely miss the point if you have to run the tap for five minutes before getting any hot water.  Based on use by a household of four people, we’ve set out to show how we could save 250,000 litres of water a year without any lifestyle changes.  That’s a big saving, especially as punitive water pricing is introduced in some municipalities.

Electricity from solar is probably the easiest part of this project.  Hot water and heating is the bigger challenge and something we are pursuing in considerable depth.  We’re rather impressed by our current system at the dizzying cost of R130, but you’ll have to come back to read about that.  LP Gas is not an option because it is not renewable, and is only used for cooking.

We’re hoping to try out innovative roofing that combines roofing, insulation and water heating in a single panel.

And then our solar system needs WiFi for the monitoring equipment.  What seems obvious isn’t always the best, or most economical.

Converting an existing house to using solar electricity is not an economical option — one has to look at all equipment used and that’s something that we will go into in some detail.  So if you are in the market now for a new fridge or microwave for example, and might convert to solar energy in the future, this should be essential reading.  Appliances that cater for inverter technology will save you a lot of money in the long term.

And then one cannot escape the spell and new energy of Boschendal itself.  So, an essential element of smarter living has to be the planting.

We are keen to promote innovative products that make a difference, just as we’re keen to identify new product opportunities — especially where it comes to import replacement.

Who are we working with?

The following list will grow and the names will be added to this post.

Boschendal

Boschendal Wine Estate was an ideal partner.  In March last year, we wrote that Boschendal is one of the Western Cape’s best Good News stories under the new owners.  The depth of their vision and the rate at which it is being achieved is phenomenal.  Their first 150kW solar project is currently being completed… but they also have a far bigger stories to tell.  Read about how even the cattle have “happy lines”.

Boschendal has made a cottage available for an extended living project.  Everything is being measured and recorded, starting with the needs of a basic installation and expanding to cater for more household equipment and then the shorter days of winter.

exsolar-logo

ExSolar, based in Somerset West, Cape Town, are providing technical solutions and advice.

Without their initial advice, we would have been hopelessly lost.  We will publish interviews with David Cooke to guide others who are thinking of following this route.  We were also impressed by some of the more unusual solar installations they have done — click here.

wcpg-logoThe Western Cape’s Department of Environmental Affairs & Development Planning heard about what we are doing and asked if they could partner with CapeInfo on the stories we publish and this project.

I spent a few hours with Karen Shippey, chief director of environmental sustainability, at Boschendal and was fascinated by the breadth of their insight.  This is a partnership that will unfold over time.

*****

The great thing about solar power is that it is a technology, not a fuel.  And solar energy cannot be taxed!  It can give power to the people and take control and revenue streams away from governments and municipalities.  And less government is better government.

We welcome your comments.  Please share this with others who may be interested in this topic.  You can subscribe by email to new stories which appear here — the subscription form is in the right hand column of this page.

Follow us on Twitter: @capeinfo_com  — #smarterliving


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