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Goodbye Eskom — Vodacom to pilot buying all its power from independent producers

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Vodacom South Africa says it will soon launch a pilot with Eskom to source all its electricity from renewable independent power producers.

It said the pilot’s success would provide Vodacom with renewable power and a blueprint for other South African corporates to replicate.

This would let more companies add capacity to the grid and help solve South Africa’s energy crisis, stated Vodacom.

Vodacom said its operating situation is unique due to the complexities of having over 15,000 distributed low-voltage sites across the country with linkage to 168 municipalities.

Until now, this complexity has prevented Vodacom from accessing power purchase agreements and “wheeling” — or transferring energy over Eskom’s grid.

While Vodacom would get its electricity from non-Eskom sources if the pilot is successful, the state-owned power utility would still provide transmission infrastructure and services.

“They want to start their own green power generation for their towers, but how do they get the electricity to the towers? That is where we will come in,” Eskom CEO André De Ruyter said in a wide-ranging Sunday Times interview.

De Ruyter explained that although Eskom is executing a plan to rent out land on which private power producers can build renewable energy generation, this takes time that South Africa simply does not have.

He said that Vodacom’s initiative is part of the government’s and Eskom’s shorter-term plans to unlock essential additional electricity generating capacity from South Africa’s private sector.

Eskom calls its appeal to the private sector “100 megawatts from 100 companies”.

If a hundred of South Africa’s large corporations could each put 100MW onto the grid, that would be 10,000MW — equivalent to 10 stages of load-shedding.

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André de Ruyter
Andre de Ruyter, Eskom CEO

Vodacom said it is in the last phase of the commercial processes to secure power purchase agreements with independent power producers.

However, it cautioned that the project would not directly improve energy security at its sites.

According to Vodacom, access to renewable power benefits customers by reducing the carbon footprint of the country’s energy sector and promoting access to cost-effective, sustainable energy sources.

The pilot’s success would also enable other companies to access renewable power purchase agreements, allowing the private sector to assist Eskom with much-needed additional capacity.

“This is a monumental move forward to assist Eskom and South Africa to solve the energy crisis, which proves our greatest threat to an economic recovery,” said Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub.

“It is our belief that the energy crisis in South Africa can be solved with the assistance of private sector participation and enablement — this solution does just that, and can be fast-tracked and scaled to address the shortfall of generation capacity within two years.”

Joosub said access to reliable and low-cost energy is fundamental for any modern economy to flourish.

“Through Vodacom’s partnership with Eskom, we will be able to meet our 2025 commitments to source 100% of our electricity from renewable sources across all our operations.”

Vodacom solar power site in Bloemfontein, officially announced on 13 September 2021

South Africa’s cellular carriers have struggled to keep their mobile networks operational during the higher levels of load-shedding this past week.

While stage 6 load-shedding raged, Vodacom warned that if power cuts continued, it could cause total network blackouts in some areas.

The operator’s statements to the press came after South Africans complained of degraded network performance and intermittent connectivity in some places.

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Although South Africa’s mobile network operators have battery backups at a substantial proportion of their towers, higher stages of load-shedding prevent the batteries from recharging fully.

MTN corporate affairs executive Jacqui O’Sullivan reiterated last week that their batteries need much more time to recharge than load-shedding schedules allowed.

“The problem is that the batteries need 12 to 18 hours to recharge,” O’Sullivan said.

“They give you 6 to 12 hours of capacity depending on the site.”

“The key thing is that during stage 5 and stage 6, there isn’t 12 to 18 hours between load-shedding to allow those batteries to recharge.”

To combat this problem, Vodacom and MTN have deployed “backups for the backup”, using thousands of mobile generators around the country to power sites and recharge batteries at critical towers.

O’Sullivan said that MTN burns roughly 450,000 litres of fuel per month during stage 5 and stage 6 power cuts.

Vodacom said it had spent around R2 billion just on batteries over the past two years.

Just over a year ago, Vodacom unveiled three new solar-powered sites in Polokwane, Vereeniging and Bloemfontein.

Vodacom spent R8 million on the sites, which annually generate approximately 127MWh.

In 2019, Vodacom unveiled a solar photovoltaic system at its Randburg base station controller in Johannesburg that can generate 34kW of power.

“In the past, we’ve installed solar panels at Vodacom offices as well as in our network infrastructure, however using solar energy to power our base station controllers is an area of opportunity for us,” Vodacom SA external affairs director Takalani Netshitenzhe said at the time.

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