A first-of-its-kind renewable energy project by the Eastern Cape Province and State of Lower Saxony, which has helped to fast-track the electrification of an Upper Blinkwater community, has been handed to the mini-grid’s owner and operator, the Raymond Mhlaba Local Municipality (RMLM).
The Upper Blinkwater’s Mthocwa community is the recipient of 57 electrical connections that receive high-quality electricity and make up the project’s operational phase. A further expansion phase that allows for additional connections is underway.
German partner to the project Lower Saxony Minister President Stephan Weil explains the Upper Blinkwater Mini-Grid is a breakthrough energy project. It is set to bring development opportunities to a remote village forward by a decade.
While high-quality electricity provision is an inextricable part of the mini-grid project, the community has seen significant human development.
MEC for Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism Mlungisi Mvoko explains further: “The mini-grid, through a study conducted by the University of Fort Hare (UFH), one of the project’s academic partners, shows mini-grids can be a catalyst for other kinds of local livelihood development.”
The study shows how the mini-grid has improved the community’s lives by creating jobs and businesses, and postgraduate students were empowered with research skills and sharing knowledge. Four doctoral, four master’s and four honours degrees are a result of the mini-grid”.
The mini-grid also showed increased use of appliances by community members and improved family engagement because electricity has reduced the workload of women who can now watch television with their families. It has allowed for increased study hours for children and increased use of appliances.
“A significant finding of the study is that the mini-grid has increased the community’s average income by 32%, with women showing a greater increase (40%) in income,” says Mvoko.
The mini-grid was conceptualised in 2015 as part of the twinning arrangement between the province and its German counterpart.
“Based on the longstanding, successful partnership between Eastern Cape and Lower Saxony we empower and uplift a lot of families in Upper Blinkwater. But this project has an impact beyond these two regions. It is a model for other rural areas in South Africa. Everyone involved can be proud of this,” Lower Saxony’s Weil says.
The project’s institutional model has developed a landmark approach to the ownership, operation, and maintenance of mini-grids by local municipalities that can now consider renewable energy mini-grid technology, which is mature, cheaper, and reliable.
Beyond the world-class infrastructure, each household is equipped with an intelligent and prepaid meter integrated into the municipal billing system and receives electricity similar in quality and quantity to Eskom power.
The community’s mini-grid, which was chosen based on its unitedness and remoteness, consists of a fully operational renewable energy hybrid mini-grid made up of PV panels, wind energy, and batteries; delivering electricity via a smart, local power grid to households.
The mini-grid operations are automated and consist of a mini-grid controller and human-machine interface that monitor, integrate and manage the battery management system, incoming power from the wind and solar, the backup generator, and the metering system at the households.
A computerised power control system manages the mini-grid. Wireless communications between the mini-grid control room “talk” to smart meters and circuits in the households which ensures that the overall system remains balanced.
It also showcases the importance of social facilitation. The mini-grid was designed in collaboration with the municipality and community. The community has walked with the project every step of the way. In turn, it has fostered a deep sense of local ownership of the minigrid. The community truly believes it is the agent for its own livelihoods.
“At a national level, the project has paved the way for future mini-grid development, defining the policies, licensing processes, and partnerships to open the mini-grid space in South Africa,” says Mvoko.
The project explores new institutional, regulatory and statutory territories with national regulators and decision-makers such as the National Energy Regulator of South Africa, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, and Eskom.
The project also demonstrates like-minded organisations’ local, provincial, national and international collaborative power.
Project funding and development partners have included the Eastern Cape Province, the federal state Lower Saxony and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ), acting on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) of Germany, and the Raymond Mhlaba Local Municipality.
A second phase of the project – the integration of wind energy to the grid – was funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in partnership with the Department of Mineral Resources of Energy (DMRE).
Core implementation partners include the Eastern Cape Department of Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEDEAT) with support from the GIZ South African-German Energy Programme (SAGEN) ; the Lower Saxony Ministry for Environment, Energy and Climate Protection and the GIZ German Gouvernement – Federal State Programme (BLP) in cooperation with partners in Lower Saxony (DLR and DEULA); the Eastern Cape Rural Development Agency; the DMRE Global Environmental Facility and (UNDP) Country Office supported by the South Africa National Energy Development Institute – through the South African Wind Energy Programme; Phase 2 (SAWEP 2).
The local technical and academic partners have included the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Nelson Mandela University, and UFH.
The wind component has been operational since September 2022.
Furthermore, the mini-grid’s construction is a testament to South Africa’s ability to produce local content for this type of build. The batteries, solar panels, wind turbines, and reticulation systems were manufactured in South Africa.