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Why solar isn’t soaring

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Given the current power challenges South Africans face, it makes sense for many to make use of rooftop solar panels. However, the uptake has been really slow due to the installation price, ROI and problems linking the panels into the current electricity grid, writes KEVIN NORRIS and DAVE SMITH of the Jasco Group.

Given the current power challenges in South Africa, as well as a growing trend toward solutions for sustainable electricity, solar technology as a source of energy supply has become a hot topic, particularly for organisations wishing to reduce their reliance on utility power sources. Rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) plants can help organisations generate their own power, and using grid tie inverter systems enables them to feed excess generated power back to the utility for use elsewhere. However, despite the benefits of such systems, there are two common challenges that have emerged. Firstly, PV plants are a costly investment, and the Return On Investment (ROI) has in the past taken many years to realise, although this is changing as the cost of installation reduces and electricity tariffs continue to increase. This makes obtaining funding for such systems difficult. Secondly, there remain several issues with the connection of solar plants to the main grid, which has slowed the uptake of these solutions. Addressing these challenges is key to harnessing the power of the sun as an alternate, sustainable energy source.

Grid tie solar systems are the simplest and most cost effective method for utilising solar energy as a replacement for day-to-day power requirements. On a very basic level, the grid tie invertor converts the direct current (DC) power generated by solar panels, into the alternating current (AC), and injects this AC current into the existing load. Any excess energy is then fed into the power distribution network. The inverter is also able to ensure that energy requirements are drawn from available solar power first, and only utilise utility supply should there be a solar shortfall. This system does not necessarily require a battery for energy storage, although this will extend functionality, so the installation is very simple and efficient, and maintenance is low. However, while the cost of manufacturing solar PV panels and grid tie inverters has reduced over the past few years, as a result of increased demand, greater economies of scale and technological advancements, solar remains a costly solution to implement. The high cost of raw materials and the high-tech conditions required for the manufacture of components keep these solutions out of reach of the average homeowner or business.

Justifying this investment is often one of the biggest challenges to the implementation of solar power solutions, and obtaining loans and funding is typically a difficult sell. ROI takes a few years to realise, and the investment will only typically pay for itself within six to 10 years. The rate of return is dependent on a number of factors, including the type of installation and the existing tariff with the utility. However, what needs to be kept in mind is that solar PV systems have a predictable performance curve of 25 years and a usable life of 35 years. In addition, using a grid tie inverter system, homeowners and businesses will one day be able to feed excess power back to the grid, either offsetting this against utilisation costs or selling this power to the utility provider. PV systems therefore should not be seen as a depreciating asset. They are in fact an asset that not only reduces current costs, but in the long run could be a significant income generator for the owner.

To quantify this value is a relatively simple mathematical exercise with the assistance of financial models. In 2015 the average cost of electricity per kilowatt-hour (kWh) is similar to the Lifecycle Levelised Cost of Energy (LLCE) of a typical grid tie system at around R1.00 per kWh. This means that, calculated over the complete guaranteed performance lifespan of the panels (approximately 25 years), the cost per kWh from a solar PV system will be similar to the municipal cost in 2015. Going forward the cost of electricity from the utility is very likely to increase significantly year on year, while the cost of the installed PV system will remain at its installed price plus the minimal cost of maintenance. If you look at this over the next 10 years, your cost of solar generation would be around R1.00 per kWh, while the utility cost is forecast to be as high as R3.50 per kWh.

This same trend is likely to continue over the lifespan of the solar PV system. If you project these increases over the 25-year period, the cost difference between now and then would be significant. Effectively, within this period, the solar PV solution could still be generating electricity at R1.00 per kWh, whereas by that stage the cost of utility power will doubtless have increased many times. It is these future differences in the cost of energy between the utility costs and the fixed solar PV cost that should be recognised as part of the long-term sustainability of owning such an asset. Additionally, in most cases the asset is attached to a building and would result in improved valuation of the building. Not only does this have a positive financial implication, it also has an environmental implication, especially when one considers the Carbon Tax that will be levied as of 2016. The only way to negate the carbon tax is to either recycle or produce “Green kWh” from a renewable source like solar PV.

In order to drive adoption of solar PV solutions, it is necessary for financial institutions to recognise their value and assist businesses and homeowners with funding these systems. Forward-thinking financial institutions should look to leverage the security of a loan for solar PV power against the asset itself, as it will pay for itself many times over in years to come. The asset could also be recognised as part of the building itself and be financed utilising an extension of the building bond. In addition, government needs to come on board by assisting financial institutions with tax rebates for their efforts in financing Solar PV systems. This is sound strategy, as by funding these systems, financial institutions are contributing to the overall reduction in carbon output and, more importantly, helping to resolving the country’s current energy shortages.

In addition to funding, connecting to the utility remains a challenge. One of the most pressing issues is the nature of pure solar solutions (without energy storage capability), in that they are only able to produce energy during daylight hours, and the energy must be used or dumped. For the majority of residential applications where nobody is at home during the day, this generated power will be wasted if a solution to feed this power back into the grid cannot be resolved. Connection codes therefore need to be finalised, and metering for two-way energy flow needs to be implemented. It is also important to find a solution to the problem of optimising the use of all renewable energy generated to the advantage of both the end-user and the utility providers.

The concept of net metering, whereby users sell their excess renewable energy back to the utility for credit and utilise these credits when the renewable source experiences shortfall (such as at night when there is no sun to power solar PV systems) is one that has great potential to benefit all parties concerned. For most residential applications, this form of energy trading works well. Some utilities may limit the amount of energy you can sell back for credits to the amount of utility energy used (i.e. if you use 2,000 kWh per month, than you may only sell back a maximum of 2,000 kWh per month). Another system would be to annualise this amount, enabling owners to make better use of the credits throughout the year, such as in winter where generation may not match overall consumption.

Theoretically, users could manage consumption and generation of energy to a zero balance and not have to spend a cent on energy from the utility for the year. This idea in principle is appealing, particularly for consumers and business, however for utilities this could cause problems. If renewable energy customers are not paying what they used to pay for electricity, but rather supplementing their own power generation with utility power, how does the utility find revenue to pay for the maintenance of the generation, transmission and distribution network the entire system uses? Feed in tariffs have been suggested as one solution to this problem, whereby the utility purchases the excess energy from providers, while users still purchase utility power, and there is no obligation to consume at the same rate as you sell energy.

Regardless of the challenges involved, solar PV remains the most viable and cost effective alternate energy source for South Africa, a country that experiences significant hours of sunshine for much of the year in the majority of its regions. If these problems can be satisfactorily resolved and solar becomes a mainstream power generation source, not just for the utility but for business and homeowners too, the currently bleak power prospects of South Africa may have a brighter future after all.

* Kevin Norris, Consulting Solutions Architect, Renewable Energy, and Dave Smith, Managing Director, Renewable Energy, The Jasco Group

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AppDate: Prepare for space

In this week’s AppDate, SEAN BACHER highlights Space Nation Navigator, Hitman Sniper, Snake Mask, Memrise, WhatsApp Web, and Carrot Weather.

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Space Nation Navigator

Space Nation Navigator is a bit of a strange app. It is part game, part exercise and part educational. On the game side, users have to navigate the Mars Rover, put the International Space Station back into orbit or move their Martians to safety before a sand storm hits Mars. When it comes to exercise, Space Nation Navigator provides users with a range of exercises and Yoga videos to prepare them for space travel and working in an anti-gravity environment. The education aspect teaches users about the planets, and star constellations, and then offers quizzes on what has been taught.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: A free download.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Memrise

Memrise takes a new approach to help people learn new languages. Instead of providing a user with random phrases and words to memorise, the app connects you with a person already fluent in the language you want to learn. In turn, the person you are speaking to wants to learn the language in which you are fluent. Once your profile is filled out and languages selected, it connects you with people around the world who are interested in your language, and then allows you to chat with them in real-time. Memrise also lets one learn new languages through games, chatbots and grammarbots that help with spelling, tenses and pronunciations.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: A free download.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Hitman Sniper

Hitman Sniper is loosely based on the Agent 47 movie released a few years ago. The game offers players the ability to hone their shooting skills through a range of training courses and, once they think they are ready, they can start taking out the bad guys. Things start off easy enough, but they get more and more difficult as one progresses through the 150 missions on offer. One will also have to upgrade various gun components, like scopes, magazine capacities and silencers, to make the missions a little easier. Hitman Sniper lets users buy 16 to tackle each of the missions – either with real money or via the points accumulated by completing missions. Money and points can also be used to upgrade firearms.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: R7 – with a range of in-app purchases.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Snake Mask

The iconic Snake game that was preinstalled on most older Nokia phones has had a complete make-over. It now uses Facebook’s AR technology, meaning that you have to navigate the snake around obstacles in your home or office, all the while collecting coins and stars that change the snake’s speed and length. Unfortunately, Snake Mask is only available on Nokia’s new range of smartphones. However, it should not take long before it slithers onto other devices.

 

Platform: New Nokia smartphones running Android.

Cost: Free to use through the Facebook app installed on the device.

Stockists: Available through the Facebook app.

 

WhatsApp Web

Although this is by no means a new app, it is an extremely useful one, and one that not many people know about. Tapping out WhatsApps on your phone is easy enough, but thanks to WhatsApp Web it can be even easier. Open the WhatApp Web page under WhatsApp and you will see a QR code. Scan this code through WhatsApp on your mobile and you will be shown a replica of what you would normally see on your phone. You can then type and reply to messages using your computer instead of having to stop everything and unlock your phone every time a message comes through. WhatsApp Web is great if you share your computer with other people as it automatically disconnects when the browser is closed. However WhatsApp also offers an app that when installed will stay connected to your phone unless you manually remove it.

 

Platform: Any up-to-date Internet browser

Cost: Free to use and install

Stockists: Visit www.WhatsApp.com

 

Carrot Weather

There are thousands of weather apps on the Internet these days and all of them do the same thing – inform you of the weather in your area. However, Carrot Weather has taken what is just another app and turned it into something fun. By fun, I mean sarcastic, rude and completely politically incorrect. A user starts off by selecting religious and political views. It then asks about personality, ranging from friendly to homicidal to overkill – which includes profanity. So, for instance, instead of waking up to to the standard partly cloudy forecast, Carrot Weather will display something like: “It’s only partly sunny, the sun is a total effing failure.” It also has a range of insults that it throws at you whenever you open the app – some of them downright insulting, so it is definitely not for those who are easily offended. The app’s user interface is very simple, displaying a week’s daily forecast and hourly forecasts for the day selected.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: Free to download but with adverts. The premium, advert free version costs R12 per month.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

* Sean Bacher is editor of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @SeanBacher

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SA Start-up reinvents PABX

For any South African business, the idea of setting up or changing a telephonic switchboard system is the stuff of nightmares. Dealing with expensive hardware and hearing things like QSIG and VOIP is not what you’d call exciting.But now there is an app.

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Enter BuzzBox (www.buzzboxcloud.co.za), a web-based telephone switchboard that is aimed at small and medium sized businesses wanting to take the hassle and cost out of the company switchboard. Whether you are a small one-man operation or a larger organisation with staff working remotely, BuzzBox is the best switchboard solution.

What sets BuzzBox apart from anything else on the market is its easy-to-use dashboard. It puts you in control of everything from picking your phone number to setting up voice prompts and managing your business-hours schedule.

BuzzBox was developed when the startup behind it, Jini-Guru, needed such a service for its own use across multiple continents. “When we started Jini-Guru we could not find a seamless online process that would allow us to set up a full web-based switchboard, so we decided to build one for ourselves,” says Mike Smits, Director at Jini-Guru.

He says a lot of startups today are tech savvy and know how to use apps and the services that go with it. “It’s the uberisation of services and its driving demand for instant service activation.”

BuzzBox works as an app on both iOS and Android but users wanting a desk phone option can choose from a variety of devices on offer or use their existing VOIP phones.

Setting up a BuzzBox account takes 5 minutes. During registration your FICA documents are uploaded [ID and proof or residence] and you get to pick your phone number before the account is created. Companies that want to keep an existing number can do so too.

The real magic happens when you log on to the BuzzBox Dashboard. The main screen displays a summary of statistics for your account while the left-hand menu provides you quick access to various configuration settings and reports.

Setting up new extensions or external numbers is done with a few clicks and you can even set up various departments which is a great way to route a call to various people in a department, like sales or support.

The intuitive user interface also makes it easy to set up hold-music and voice prompts. You can add voice prompts by recording them straight to your phone, just make sure you use a clear voice with quiet surroundings for the best customer experience.

One of the main features of BuzzBox is its call recording feature that allows an organisation to record calls for legislative purposes, such as a lawyer, or for customer service purposes such as support. Recordings are stored securely online, and you have the ability to download recordings for playback. Companies can opt-in for this service and it’s free to use. Recordings are stored online and are fully encrypted so only you can listen to, or download them. Storage costs R1 for every 1000 minutes of stored recordings.

Other features include call forwarding and scheduling. The latter allows you to set office hours for your organisation which will divert calls to an after-hours messaging service. You also have the option to enable routing to an employee who is on call after hours.

BuzzBox also has a reseller program for companies wanting to offer this as a switchboard solution to their existing customers.

The costs for this service is R89 p/m for the first phone number which includes your first extension for free. Thereafter you’ll pay R89p/m per extension. Calls between extensions are free but you pay per second for all outgoing phone calls. More info on pricing can be found here: https://buzzboxcloud.co.za/pricing/

BuzzBox is offering a Launch promotion where they are offering the first line and extension free for 12 months. Only pay for calls. Use promo code “feoifyaa” during sign-up to apply your discount.

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