That time has, indeed, come for solar – but not in the form of home solar installations, as so many of us had wished. Home solar power is simply not compatible with the existing electrical grid. Outside of completely rebuilding the system (at enormous cost, we are told), home-based solar power generation has to exist alongside the traditional distribution system, resulting in a measure of duplication that only drives up costs and reduces efficiency.
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Rebuilding the system is not only very costly; it is also, as it happens, not in the interests of the existing political structure of the country, which relies on electricity distribution as a convenient form of taxation.
Regardless of their political affiliation, local municipalities could not function without the markup they make on the electricity they distribute. Consumers will have noticed that most municipalities have been cancelling schemes they introduced not that long ago, to subsidise the installation of home solar systems, because it’s simply not in their interests.
Right now, Eskom and the major city councils have the political clout to push their agenda through, no matter how unenlightened it may seem. In theory, home solar generators should be feeding any excess power they generate into the communal system, but in practice it simply isn’t happening: the system’s not designed for it. While experts anticipate that the number of home solar installations will continue to increase for a number of reasons, the real solar development is going to be in big solar installations by public utilities such as Eskom.
The news is not all negative. As Reuters recently noted, electricity generated by unsubsidized utility-scale solar installations costs significantly less to generate than electricity from residential rooftop panels, and marginally less than electricity generated by gas turbines. And, as technology advances and competition in the field increases by the day, so the costs are also decreasing by the day.
PS: If for any reason you do not trust Eskom and the government to keep your lights and TV on for the next 10 years, ignore all the above. Buy as many solar panels as you can afford and your roof can accommodate. And, what the hell, throw an illegal extension cable over the fence to help out your neighbour on those nights when the only lights still burning are those in the Presidency.
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