Tim Panton: This is the Distributed Future Podcast where we talk to people who are doing interesting things and trying to learn about what the future might look like from their experience. I encourage you to subscribe to the podcast, otherwise, you'll miss episodes. And tell your friends, otherwise, they'll miss episodes and they won't know what the future is gonna look like. So, without any more blubber from me, I'd like our guest to introduce themselves now, please.
Jaco: Hi. Yeah, my name is Jaco, I live in South Africa. I'm a programmer currently doing web development, but the company I work for also does other things. And I'm 100% work from home.
Tim: So, the thing I wanted to talk to you about was your solar install. Because people have kind of done solar, but it feels to me like what you're doing in South Africa is-- the motivation is different and what you're doing with is a little different. So I wanted to talk around that and see whether we can learn anything from that. Can you give us the basics on what you've done and what you've got and how it's going?
Jaco: Solar down here has become a matter of necessity. There's huge competition among companies now to provide solar to people who need it, mainly because the power company is becoming increasingly unable to provide enough electricity for the whole country. So we found a company that does a rental scheme where instead of buying the equipment outright, you rent it from them and after a certain amount of years, you own it. The monthly amount actually works out less than our electrical bill at the moment and since the price of electricity from the grid will go up shortly in a few months, we will be saving even more. Yeah, so this actually worked out very nicely for us because we wouldn't have been able to afford a solar installation had we had to pay for it upfront. Or we'd have to do gymnastics, like, take out a second mortgage or that sort of thing.
Tim: So, do you know who is financing that? Is it a government scheme that's effectively financing? Somebody must be financing the capital for this.
Jaco: This, I believe, is private. I wouldn't be able to tell you who the financing is. It's very possible that they're operating entirely on loans and the customers are basically paying off their loans. [chuckles]
Tim: Interesting. So it's a purely commercial thing.
Jaco: It's not government. In fact, I wouldn't trust government to have this initiative really. In fact, there was recently a case of a small town somewhere who wanted to run their own solar farm also provided by different private company, and the more or less monopoly of electrical company managed to successfully sue that town into not using solar and not being allowed to use their solar. And even though the electrical company is supposedly independent, they are a parastatal. I believe they're largely funded by government still. So I think there's a huge resistance here still to the idea of alternative energy sources, even though you see them popping up in some places here where you'll see wind turbines and things.
Tim: What is the grid mostly powered on? Is it coal or oil or what?
Jaco: We have one nuclear reactor which is about an hour drive from here, but it's mostly cold beyond that. In fact, they're trying to solve their electrical deficit right now by building two massive coal power plants, although apparently there's issues with that as well. The design of the power plants is not great. They totally underestimated the scope of development and it's taking a lot longer apparently to build these, and there's been reports of quality issues and breakages on those. But yeah, it's coal. Coal is what they are hanging their hat on, although there are talks of them processing over 9,000 proposals right now for alternative energy or renewable energy sources, mostly wind and solar. So maybe there's hope, who knows.
Tim: That's fascinating because in Germany where I'm at the moment, and in the UK where I am some of the time, there is quite a lot of solar and there's quite a lot of wind power, but it's almost all through the grid and very little of it is done... I mean, some people do have solar on their rooftops but I don't know what the contribution to the overall power grid is. And a lot of that was done sort of commercially to feed into the grid and get the money back from the grid. Do you get to feed into the grid? Do you get paid for that?
Jaco: That, unfortunately, does not happen. And it is unfortunate because we've only had the solar installation for a third day now and only two full days so far. But in both cases sort of mid-afternoon, we've ended up at a point where our battery's fully charged and the panels are still producing with nowhere for that electricity to go. So there is room for us to feed it to the grid but there's no provision for that. In fact, these private solar installations currently have absolutely no coordination with the grid at all. So there's no global... There's no strategy further up for this sort of thing.
Tim: Absolutely. So practically, do you manage that grid connection yourself? Do you just switch it over to the grid or does it do that for you?
Jaco: The system we got does have a system that automatically regulates that, but we've actually successfully managed to go most of the day with the grid completely switched off. Like right now, it's completely switched off as a partly cloudy day and we're still producing twice what we're consuming.
Tim: And you're in winter?
Jaco: Yes, we're in winter. And winter in this part of the country is rainy season, so this is the worst-case scenario season we're in right now and we're still producing a reasonable amount of electricity via solar.
Tim: Fascinating. I guess we need to quantify that a little bit. Can I be nosy and ask how many kilowatts of panel you've got, what size of the battery is, and stuff like that?
Jaco: You know, I wish I could... Hang on a sec, I think I got the details here. Okay. Actually, I don't know what the numbers are but it just says installed capacity 3.64 kWp. Yeah, that's what I got here. I can give you some stats. I don't know what the size of the battery is.
Unknown speaker: 5.5.
Jaco: 5.5. Okay, cool. So currently it's producing... It's just after 11:00 in the morning, it's sunny-ish outside, some scattered clouds. It's producing 899 watts at the moment and our consumption is 423.
Tim: So, what do you use? What uses most of the power then? I mean, have you looked into that?
Jaco: Um, a cappuccino machine. [Tim laughs] Well, usually when they install these, they actually don't put your water heat and your stove on the same circuit because for most people, those use too much. But we actually have very low consumption otherwise, so they put everything on the same circuit. Right now, we don't have the water heater on permanently. We just switch it on once a day for like an hour or so just to heat it up and then we switch it on. That spikes quite heavily. And yeah, the cappuccino machine I was partially joking but yes, that'll spike also. But again, that's only on for 15 minutes or so, maybe twice a day. So even though it spikes quite heavily, earlier I had it on for maybe 10 or 15 minutes and it only took about 2% of our battery so it's not too bad. Sharp spike, but short.
Tim: Right. That's fascinating. So your water heater, I was in Pacific Island a while back and they've done a massive thing of putting direct solar water heating onto rooftops. So basically, they put a pane of glass with black backing and then they run the water literally through that and into a hot tank in the roof.
Jaco: That is a thing here as well and we will be looking into that so that that strain gets taken off the panels.
Tim: Right. But you've got an electric cooker and you're sticking with?
Jaco: Yeah.
Tim: Okay. Like, I have visions of you turning the oven on to bake bread and draining the battery flat, you know? Is that a realistic-
Jaco: Honestly, we've not tested that yet. [Tim chuckles] We have a washing machine that didn't seem to do too much damage. I suspect cooking will, you know, especially if it's baking which uses up more time, I'm sure that'll take a lot of the battery. But then again, we can fall back on the grid if we need to. We've actually not needed to yet, but we can if we need to, assuming it's on at the time because at the moment we are at four to six hours of the grid power being off at the moment. And there's talks of it going up because they are apparently producing 3,000 megawatts less this year than they did last year, so there are talks of possibly even more power outs.
Tim: So just from the point of view of getting a day's work done working from home on your web development, you really need that power. Because presumably, the power cuts aren't conveniently in the middle of the night, they're probably when you want to work.
Jaco: Fortunately, they are scheduled and they do stick to the schedule, give or take a few minutes. So you can plan around it. Before the solar, you just have to make sure your laptop is properly charged. Our fiber internet and router and stuff is on a separate little UPS thing that does usually carry us through the entire power out. And most companies do have some contingencies in place, either just an inverter battery solution that still charges off the grid. And in some places that require a bit more oomph, they will have petrol-based generators or diesel generators or whatever.
Tim: Yes. So essentially what you're doing here is almost a decentralized power system that you're doing. You're kind of the [mastodon] of electricity here. Like, it's all moving out to the edges. How much extra cognitive hassle is that for you versus the grid?
Jaco: Well, it's a little strange right now. It's new and interesting and we're monitoring it, but I wouldn't consider it strain. And I can tell you that the regular power outages from the grid does have some negative low-level stress effect. I can tell you it does feel like a weight has been lifted. So even though we do now have to actively manage it, if something is using a little bit too much like the water heater, we have to switch it off a little bit. We have to make sure that the battery is fully charged by sunset, that sort of thing. We do have to actively monitor it. But I can tell you it's way less stressful than the situation where you have to effectively pause for power outages, or manage your routine around power outages. This is definitely a lot less of a mental strain, I'd say.
Tim: Okay, so you will probably have to change your habits a bit but you're already doing that anyway because of the existing-- I think it's called load shedding.
Jaco: Yeah, they call it load shedding. Usually, they work it out based on... You know, they'll go demand versus supply and then they'll say, "We're switching to stage four." And stage four has a certain schedule for each area. So it's not a complete national shutdown, they do it in... Like, certain areas will have certain times which they shut off. And then if it needs to bump it higher, they will switch to a higher stage of load shedding which will have a more aggressive schedule. So currently, we're hovering between stage three, four, five, six-ish, which will be up to like eight hours with no power in the day. But there's talks of possibly needing to go up to stage sixteen which is-- sorry, stage 12-- which will be 16 hours of power outage, which thankfully now we're gonna be missing.
Tim: Yeah. But that will be like... Presumably, there's a system in place for making sure that hospitals and schools maybe keep the power or are they all on diesel?
Jaco: Yeah, hospitals are exempt. And if you're fortunate enough to live right next to a hospital, you also end up being exempt because you'll be on the same sort of block circuit.
Tim: [laughs] That brings up an interesting idea that maybe if you had a friend who was on a different circuit, the two of you could kind of commute between each other during... The one who had the power on could be the host for the day and you could go off and do that.
Jaco: I guess so.
Tim: And what do hosting companies do? If you want to run a data center under these circumstances, how does that work?
Jaco: I don't know. Our internet typically remains operational during load shedding. I don't know if it's because they have really efficient backup power or whether it's just a case of it being distributed well. I suspect it is the former because it is possible to have backup power set up. The power is out and most of that at a certain stage, you might get four hours of power out on a single stretch. So I think it is possible to keep yourself afloat and for a data center to keep itself powered for four hours.
Tim: I'm now starting to think about what the consequences and the side effects of something like load shedding. Like you were saying, you need to make sure your battery is charged by the end of the day to ensure that you've got enough power for the morning. I'm starting to think the same thing is going to be true for you are a data center. When the power is on, they're going to almost double their consumption by charging up all their batteries. So it's kind of we're not exactly self-defeating, but it's like it doesn't have the national consumption, presumably, because everyone is charging up their laptops and heating up their water and all of that.
Jaco: That's exactly it. So we have a local equivalent of Amazon called Takealot and if you look at what they've selling on there, there's a real uptick in things like those EcoFlow inverter battery type of setups. There's a real increase in selling of those, but they don't necessarily sell them with solar charging so a lot of people who buy those will just charge them off the grid anyway. Which means while the power is on, the grid consumption is up. I don't have the stats on this but yes, I think you're correct. It definitely doesn't necessarily lift the weight off the grid all that much while people are finding alternative battery solutions that still have to be charged off the grid. We have a couple of solar lights that we used to have to charge every day, so I don't know if other people are doing that.
Tim: What does that entail when you say charge them every day? You put them out in the garden and then you bring them in in the evening or what?
Jaco: Yeah, we have a little shade outside with the panels on it so every morning would have to take the lights out, plug them into the panels, and bring them in in the evening. So that was part of the schedule before. Like I said before, for work, I'd have to make sure the laptop was properly charged before the scheduled outages. Yeah.
Tim: And where are the panels? They're on your roof or in the garden or what?
Jaco: These panels are on our roof. Originally, they did an assessment, they quoted us for eight panels. We added two extra ones which I think was a good idea because like I said, it seems to be managing even through cloudy days. I don't know how it will do if it's fully overcast and raining but theory is as long as there's visible light coming provided by the sun, then the panel's will be doing something. But yeah, they are on the roof. I got five on the one side and five on the other side of the roof. We don't have very good morning sun because we have a whole mountain to the left of me so our morning sun arrives a bit late. But usually 12:00-ish to late afternoon, actually the production is really good.
Tim: So you've got a sloping roof or a flat roof when you say it's on the side? I'm trying to picture it when you say it's on the sides of the roof.
Jaco: Yeah, it...
Tim: So that's like, what? About 30 degrees slope on it?
Jaco: Yeah, give or take, I'd say.
Tim: Okay. So does that mean that roughly only half your panels are illuminated at any time? Or how does it work?
Jaco: Maybe early morning and late afternoon. But when the sun's overhead, I think all the panels are busy working. Unfortunately, we don't have monitoring for individual panels. It would have been nice to see what the panels are producing individually on each face. But we don't have enough info.
Tim: Yeah, I did a little nerdy experiment like that in the UK where there's very small solar panel, and I'm monitoring it depending on where I put it around my house. But basically, the UK is too cloudy for that to be... Well, not too cloudy but, you know, the morning sun isn't very effective, basically, compared with by lunchtime. So you only actually have a few hours where we are. Again, we've got a hill behind us where we are so we only got a few hours of efficient sunshine. But I guess what you're saying is that your usage is-- let me see... Like, a quarter of the peak output. Your typical usage, I think you were saying, was about 800 Watts or that's what you're using in the moment, and the peak output is three and a half kilowatts. So you only need a quarter of it in order to stay afloat and anything else goes into the battery, which is probably the right scale factor, isn't it?
Jaco: It seems to be, we've got a sweet spot here. The solar panels at some point during the day, we've had over two kilowatts so it does actually even go higher than it is currently. But usually when it gets up to that amount, that's when we use that as an opportunity to heat up the water.
Tim: And climate-wise, does it ever get cold? Do you have a furnace or anything like that? How does that work?
Jaco: It's a funny thing. We have a fireplace that we used to have to run constantly but I honestly tell you that climate has very perceptively changed, because we haven't had to do that in a number of years really. We're actually thinking of having it removed now so that we have extra space because our house is quite small. So, yeah.
Tim: That's pretty terrifying, actually, that you've noticed that change in a few years.
Jaco: Yeah, a few. It's like 10 years but in the big scheme of things, it's quite... If you're talking about climate shift, 10 years is a very small amount of time.
Tim: Right. Right. But what about [unintelligible]? The other side is, you know, the Americans for example are huge on their air conditioning. Is that a thing that you need to factor into your power consumption?
Jaco: Yeah, it does get quite hot here in the summer, that is definitely a thing. We do have an air conditioner. It's not a built-in unit, it's a freestanding unit, and we don't run it all the time. We usually just crank it up for an hour or two just to cool things off and then switch it off. I don't know yet what kind of power consumption we're looking at for that, so I guess come summer we'll be finding out.
Tim: I guess with that, you have the benefit of at least it being at its hottest when it's at its sunniest and so you kind of have the best chance of it working.
Jaco: Yeah.
Tim: Interesting.
Jaco: I can't imagine that using more power than the washing machine, and it seemed fine.
Tim: Right, I guess maybe you'd leave it on for a bit longer than the washing machine. I don't know. So what I'm really interested in here is the idea that you've kind of basically taken this into your own hands, and that kind of almost government inaction or negative action is pushing you all to become more independent in terms of power. That's quite an interesting shift. Do you feel like all your neighbors are doing the same thing or what?
Jaco: In our street, we are the test case right now because we've got other neighbours asking about it. There's a lot of companies competing right now to get these installations done and they're swamped, so I'm assuming there's a lot of it going on. You don't see a lot of it normally driving around yet, so I guess people haven't really committed to this yet. Either that or they are waiting for these companies to catch up with the demand. But I think it's going to become more. It definitely, I think, is going to pick up more as the government or as the electrical company fails to provide electricity and making bad decisions all the time.
Tim: So I guess that you kind of, you know, the right determining step is both the finance and the install. Did you watch them install it? Was it a complicated thing to do? Or did they just turn up and do it pretty efficiently?
Jaco: Yeah, they seem to be quite routine for them. There wasn't much... Yeah, there wasn't any complications there. The person who led the team did mention that they sometimes have problems with components. Sometimes they're sourcing components on the day that they're even installing it because there's such a shortage that they don't always have what they need to install it. Certain items-- I think he mentioned the difference between AC and DC components, and some of the DC components he says it's sometimes hard to come by. But when they did ours, they didn't seem to have any issues. They had everything they needed, and they did in one day-- I'd say about four to five or six, maybe six or seven hours worth of work with I think it was four people.
Tim: Okay. Cool. And from your point of view applying for this, were there a bunch of bureaucratic hurdles you had to jump through? Do you have to apply to the local government for the right to do it and for permission to do it? It doesn't have to be your home, can you rent a home? What are the constraints on it?
Jaco: This is an interesting question because we didn't have to do anything. On the application form, they did ask if you own it or do you rent it? Presumably, if you rent a home, there will have to be permission by the owner. But we didn't have to get any sort of certificates from government, which is interesting because for building, you do have to. So if I were to extend my house with an extra room, I would have to submit the plans to the local council and they'd have to approve it. Presumably because this is technically just an extension of the home itself on the roof and inside or modification on the house itself, it does not fall under that. But I think compliance with electricity is a thing. I don't know if we still need... Because when you sell your house, you do need to get a compliance certificate. An inspector has to come to your house and verify that your electricals are all in order. But we didn't seem to have to do that before installing this. So I don't really know.
Tim: So are you feeling that... Actually, that's interesting, because you're renting this?
Jaco: No, no. Yeah, we're renting the solar setup.
Tim: So what happens if you choose to move when you've got it rented? Do you have to pay the contract off? Do you pass the rent onto the new people? How does it... I've just suddenly thought about like, what are the logistics of that?
Jaco: Yeah, there are certain things that are stipulated in the contract. Like if we were to cancel, they would have to come remove the equipment and we'd have to pay for that. So there's that. Presumably, there would be a provision to transfer this to someone else to take over the rent to own, like someone taking over the contract. And presumably, that person would have to go through the same application process that we had to, which is not much. It's just proof that you live there, prove that you own the place, prove that you have a fixed income. There wasn't much more to it than that.
Tim: Interesting. Yeah. So, what's the grid's attitude to this happening? Do they... I guess what I'm asking is will they push up their fixed connection fee? Will you end up with a bigger bill for the connection fee because you're using less?
Jaco: This varies between different parts of the country but where we are, you do not pay a fixed connection fee. You actually buy the electricity upfront. There's a little metre box and there's various ways that you can buy electricity using the number on this metre box, and you buy the electricity upfront.
Tim: Oh, like just for the next few days?
Jaco: Yeah. So you buy a certain amount of units, I don't know what a unit translates to in real-world terms. But yeah, you pay for that upfront and then just top it up again when you run out.
Tim: I feel like there's going to be a huge effort on your part to avoid ever having to top up that box again.
Jaco: Yeah, we still got some leftover power on it from before we switched over. I don't know where it's currently at but in theory, yeah, it would be nice to never have to add anything more to it ever again.
Tim: Do you think-- it's an impossible question because you've not had it for very long-- but do you feel like you'll change your lifestyle to fit the sun? So you'll do washing on sunny days or that kind of stuff.
Jaco: Oh, yeah. Definitely. Certain things we probably wouldn't do in the evening now. But also, it's for the most part fine. Work from home means I am home or we're both home all the time, so doing things in the daytime is not an inconvenience. Already I'm finding that- [crosstalk] Sorry. Yes.
Tim: So the overlap, there's a crossover between working from home and making it possible to shift around practical tasks like when you do the washing and maybe switch off and on the grid or whatever. So it's like it's an enabler being at home. Interesting.
Jaco: Yeah, obviously it's gonna differ from household to household. Maybe our situation is just ideal for the setup. With others, it might not be.
Tim: Yeah, that's gonna be fun to watch because, I mean-- and I can say this is sort of... Solar is happening elsewhere but I think the way that it's happening with you is oddly in between what I've seen where people are completely off-grid. Like, they have no other electricity and that is how they get electricity. And typically, those are relatively small installs. And then there's the massive solar farms that plug into the grid and then you buy electricity from them, and you're kind of completely decoupled from that and you're not really aware of when they're generating. And the price doesn't appear to vary depending on what the source is. So I think it's interesting that you're kind of halfway in between and I wonder-- kind of the reason I wanted to talk to you is I wonder to what extent we're all going to have to move to that model where we're somewhat aware of where our power is coming from and manage our behaviour to suit that source, basically.
Jaco: In my mind, I wouldn't want to be dependent on the grid entirely ever again. Because even if we weren't able to generate all the electricity we needed, we'd still be better off currently here than using the grid. My ideal situation is... Currently electrical setups I'm sure it's the same everywhere, but you know, every couple of blocks you'll see on the street corner, there's an electrical box covering the electrical connection of a certain amount of houses. I would love to see solar panels on all the roofs of one of these circuits and they're all feeding into and using off the same set of batteries so that when there's excess, it goes into the batteries and it doesn't go to waste. So, sort of like a little mini-grid that only covers maybe a block or two worth of houses.
Tim: But you said earlier that politically or legally that was being shut down.
Jaco: Yeah, that's an interesting thing. I think if you get too big, you get noticed. But honestly, there's already quite a lot of outrage about this. I'm sure eventually they will cave to pressure. Well, I would hope so because the solar farm is actually-- the one that I mentioned in that town is built already, so it would be a waste of that to dismantle the thing.
Tim: That's crazy. And do you think this political situation will resolve itself at least somewhat?
Jaco: Oh, no. Oh, boy. So the previous CEO of that electric company, he did the thing that happens all the time. He released a tell-all book about his time trying to run this company and how broken it is and all the crime syndicates operating in and around the company-- in and around the power company. And the rot goes all the way into government. So I don't foresee it getting better just like that, I think they're going to be struggling this for a while. And they're making some very strange arrangements. Like, there's currently a Turkish ship docked off the coast that is like a ship-based power station. And they are signing or have signed a 20-year contract with this Turkish company to have their boat docked offshore and provide power. And environmentalists are not liking this because-
Tim: I was gonna say, where does it get its fuel from? I mean, presumably diesel or marine diesel or something. I don't know.
Jaco: I think it's liquefied gas because I've seen infographics showing one of those liquefied gas ships pulling up next to it and supplying it with what it needs. So there's that. But yeah, it feels like... It's like a band-aid but not good. I don't know. It doesn't seem like solutions.
Tim: Right. So just to recap what you've got... Your small house, covering the roof on both sides with solar panels, you think is enough power for your daily lives. And so with an adequate battery, you can be pretty much self-contained. And it finances itself by being cheaper than the grid. So that's such a big win. I kind of wanted to re-emphasize that because it's a really good win for everybody, environmentally and you personally.
Jaco: I think so. There's only the two of us in the house, it's a small one-bedroom house, it's not huge. Presumably, families with kids and such would require a bit more than we've got. But then presumably they're also paying more regularly on the electrical bill than us so it probably all still balances out. I haven't done the math so I wouldn't be able to tell you if the rental would have been cheaper than just to get a second mortgage and buy a setup. But at least with the rental, I think they're still obligated to replace broken parts. [crosstalk] And the lifespan of this stuff is not infinite, the battery has a limited lifespan and the panels have a limited lifespan.
Tim: Yeah, interesting. I think it's a really fascinating story to sort of try and work out what that means for the rest of us. I mean, I'm in an apartment here where I don't even have a roof. I mean, there's a roof on the building but... Well, we did look at getting solar and the Housing Association did look at getting solar into the roofing. I won't get into the grief of that but it's an older building and it turns out to be fantastically difficult.
Jaco: There's a small mini-mall type thing not far from here. What they've done is they've put solar panels in their parking lot. So they've made a covered parking like a shaded parking, except it's made up of solar panels, so it's serving two functions at one. One is space for the... I mean, otherwise, people will be parking their cars in the sun. They now got a nice, shady parking, and at the same time it's providing space for the solar panels. In fact, suburbs are such very sprawled-out areas. I honestly think there's so much room here for solar panels to just organically fit into the general environment.
Tim: Well, then you've got enough sunshine that also works. Whereas like I said, in the UK, I think you'd probably end up needing twice as many panels to get the same output. But maybe I'm being gloomy about the grey, overcast UK, but I don't know.
Jaco: Well, you got wind at least.
Tim: Yeah, that's also true in Germany. There's a lot of wind power along the coast and so that's the other thing. Great. Listen, that's actually really interesting and I can say if you can send me a link to the company you rented it from and any other links that you think are relevant, I'll pop them into the show notes and do that. And the rest of it, it'll take me a few days to get a transcript done of this and then it'll be up on the website in a few days’ time, maybe a week or so. So yeah, listen, thanks so much for doing this. I really do appreciate it. It's a really interesting story from my kind of slightly different European perspective. It's a different story so it's an interesting viewpoint. So, brilliant. Thanks so much for that, and I really do appreciate it.
Jaco: Okay, no problem. Thank you very much.