What is it?
Solar power by subscription sounds strange, since sunshine is free. The problem is that the equipment needed to harness the energy of the sun can be hideously expensive. A typical installation of solar panels, storage batteries and inverter for a medium-sized house can cost well above R200,000.
The concession by government to give a 25% tax concession is almost meaningless: not only is it capped at R15,000, but it only applies to the solar panels themselves. Just in case someone tries to “cheat” by attaching a generator to the other equipment.
However, and inevitably, new business models have quickly emerged to fill the massive gaps left by government inaction, regulatory sloth, and high interest rates for financing solar installation.
After much research, we identified the most cost-effective solution as the solar “rental” option. There are various versions of this approach, with different terminology applied to different business models. You may come across Metrowatt’s “rent-to-own” or Sun Exchange’s “micro-leasing”, for example.
We settled on “solar subscription”, from Gosolr, after numerous recommendations. There is a waiting period, which may grow longer as winter sets in and demand increases, but once on site, it took solar installation company Sparki a day to install fully, neatly and efficiently. The next day, the sun was feeding in power.
We had chosen not to link the solar power feed to an electric stove or geyser, as we felt we could time usage of the former around load-shedding, and the latter retained heat effectively enough for a few people to have a daily shower regardless of power status.
The entry-level solution, which costs R1740 a month, comprises eight 455W mono solar panels, a 5.1kWh lithium batteries, and a 5kW hybrid inverter. The panels are photovoltaic, meaning they capture light, even on a cloudy day, and turn it into energy, which is stored in the batteries, The inverter then turns the direct current (DC) into alternating current (AC), which is required by the electrical grid, and feeds it into the property via a standard electricity distribution board.
We opted for an extra storage battery, which adds R690 to the monthly cost, but in retrospect possibly didn’t need it. Of course, that is assuming the country does not descend below stage 6 load-shedding.
A week after installation, the country entered ongoing stage 6 load-shedding, and the system was fully put to the test. It passed with flying colours: load-shedding went unnoticed. Fridges and freezers operated normally, finally dispelling the ongoing fear of appliances failing due to constant power surges.
Equally significantly, washing machine, computers, TV set, vacuum cleaner, toaster, air- fryer, and lawnmower could be used simultaneously without exhausting the stored power in the batteries.
What does it cost?
The solar subscription option starts at R1740 a month for a medium offering, ideal for a small house, but can also serve larger homes with fewer people living in them. It goes up to R2900 for a Large option, and R4400 for Extra Large. In-between options are also available.
Why does it matter?
“There has been a remarkable surge in demand for subscription solar solutions in recent months,” says Andrew Middleton, CEO of solar rental company Gosolr. “Although the exact size of the market is difficult to determine due to limited data, our estimates indicate that around 10,000 to 12,000 households installed solar last year, with subscription or ‘rent-to- own’ options accounting for approximately 30 to 40% of that figure. This proportion is expected to increase as more customers become aware of the benefits of subscription solar.
“In the next five years, it is anticipated that the energy storage sector, particularly batteries, will undergo the most significant technological transformation, becoming both larger and more affordable.”
What are the biggest negatives?
- A 4-8 week waiting period for installation, which may grow longer as winter sets in.
- High cost of uninstalling if rental is cancelled. The option is only for those committing to long-term use.
- There is no alert when one is switched from the electricity grid to solar and must check the control panel or mobile app to be sure.
What are the biggest positives?
- As electricity tariffs go up, the savings from solar will balance the rental cost. That means, what seems like a high monthly cost becomes both affordable and a no-brainer.
- Increases the value of a home if installation has already taken place, and new owners would probably only have to take over the rent payment.
- The provider looks after repairs and maintenance.
- Load-shedding comes and goes unnoticed.
- Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za.
Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee.