NuRa is the selected off-grid concessionaire for northern Kwazulu-Natal for the Department of Minerals and Energy’s (DME’s) off-grid electrification programme launched in 1999, to avoid the high costs of connecting remote houses to the electricity grid.
NuRa is a joint-venture between Dutch utility Nuon and Pretoria firm Rural Area Power Solutions (Raps). It is one of the five concessionaires appointed to provide the energy needs of households across South Africa that are located far from the national electricity grid.
The main objective of NuRa is to provide all the energy needs of rural households, using modern energy, in the form of solar home systems, for basic electricity supply (lights, radio and television), and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and paraffin for thermal gas requirements under the extension of the programme.
The pilot programme involved the installation of about 400 systems and a further 400 have since been installed.
According to NuRa technical manager Douglas Banks, the company is on schedule to complete its allocated 50 000 installations within the given five years. However, he believes that the number supplied could eventually be higher, since there are at least 100 000 households of the 250 000 to 300 000 in the region that are unlikely be connected to the national grid.
NuRa will be responsible for any further connections that are demanded if the requests fall within the five-year period. A decision as to exactly how many households will be connected to the national grid has not yet been made by the DME.
The utility provides a basic 50 W peak solar system.
This is sufficient for four lights, a 12 V power point, enough energy to run a black-and-white television, and a 9 V power point, enough energy to run a radio.
The system allows for 200 W hours a day, which is sufficient energy to use the lights and power points for about three to four hours a day, weather dependent.
The utility also provides some systems which deliver 220 V alternating current power for appliances that require higher voltages, such as colour televisions.
Households interested in receiving the solar panel system are required to make an application to NuRa, which will then assess if and when an installation can be made.
As part of the present agreement, the company charges consumers a R100 nonrefundable connection fee and a R58 monthly service fee (for the basic 50 W peak solar system).
However, the monthly service fee is to drop to around R18 a month by March or April as a result of government’s decision to grant the first 50 kWh of electricity free to households across the country. With regard to off-grid electrification, this has been equated to a R40 subsidy a month.
Banks anticipates that this will result in a large increase in applications for connections. A R3 500 subsidy for each connection is granted by government.
All parts of the system, including the solar panels, batteries, lights and cable are manufactured locally, although some components are imported.
Four energy stores have also been established to supply people in the area with LPG and paraffin.
These are located at Mbazwana, Jozini, Manguzi and Mkuze.
Forty-seven people are currently employed and it is expected that this will go up to 400 at the height of the project.
According to Banks, the utility has experienced normal developmental challenges, which have arisen out of logistics complexities, large distances between villages and poor road conditions.
There has also been a theft problem in the area running alongside the Mozambican border where 14 solar panels have been stolen to date.
“A challenge we have been faced with in trying to roll-out our programme is the uncertainty as to which households are to be connected to national grid at a later stage. Understandably, people do not want to pay for off-grid electrification if they have been earmarked to be connected to the national grid soon,” comments Banks.
NuRa is in discussions with the DME, Eskom and local authorities in a bid to come up with a medium-term grid electrification plan so that it is clearer as to which households will and which will not receive electrification.
The benefits of the programme are already noticeable, reports Banks.
“It is touching to see the impact of electricity on people’s lives.
“Walking into a household hundreds of kilometres from the nearest city and seeing people watching television, is heartening as it shows that they have been given the opportunity to have some contact with the outside world.
“Also, electrification has started to encourage some sort of economic activity in the region, with some people starting entrepreneurial ventures as a result of it,” he elaborates.
One woman in the area is planning to start a business charging people to come and watch television while another household has been using the solar power systems to power sewing machines.