The remarkable success of one of the largest private photovoltaic installations in southern Africa at Villiera Wines between Paarl and Stellenbosch proves this country has the expertise and technical skill to deliver world-class solar solutions, of all sizes. It also highlights that opting for solar as a sustainable energy resource has important financial and investment implications, which businessmen in all sectors have not really considered until now. This article reviews the Villiera installation and quantifies its success.
Why solar for Villiera – lower risk, great reward
Villiera Wines is a family-owned concern in the Stellenbosch area that has long pioneered environmentally responsible vine growing and wine making, but its PV installation last year was regarded as a giant leap by the industry and Simon Grier, one of the co-owners.
“To be honest,” he said, “we never intended to break any new ground; we just wanted to incorporate green technologies when we renovated our tasting room. The quotes, however, were out of line with our expectations. When one of the companies we were talking to suggested it would be more cost effective if we went bigger, I asked ‘What is big?’ Now you can see what ‘big’ is!”
Instead of signing for a system that would run the tasting room, the family therefore opted for a solar power system that would supply all of Villiera’s daytime requirements outside of harvest time. This included electricity for staff housing, offices, kitchens, processing and bottling facilities, cellars, cooling and irrigation systems in the gardens and vineyards.
The family’s decision-making process is a vital one because it represents a paradigm shift on several fronts, and recognises that going solar is not just a ‘right thing to do for the earth’ decision.
Firstly, electricity is a significant cost factor in running a wine estate, and turning to green energy to decrease reliance on the national electricity grid was an attractive philosophy for Simon and his co-owners Jeff Grier and Cathy Brewer, and a smart financial decision too.
Secondly, farming, and especially in Villiera’s case, wine farming, is a capital intensive and risky business. For example, most grape growers aim to replace 5% of their vines each year, and it takes four years until the new vines are established and producing grapes of good enough quality to be made into wine. Some of these vines may not grow very well, and deliver lower yields or poor quality fruit.
At the same time, the wine industry is highly cost competitive globally, and any cost advantage (lower, more reliable input costs or higher brand recognition through environmental care recognition) is important.
Given these factors, Simon noted that solar is a lower risk investment than the continuous investment in replacing vines. “We have a ready market (ourselves versus the competitive one for wine), we know we will be here for a long time (it’s a family business after all) and accelerated test results show that life spans of over 20 years can be expected on the solar panels. In addition, while the panels are expected to ‘pay for themselves’ over seven to eight years, the tax deduction of 50%, 30% and 20% allowed for as depreciation provides for an accelerated cash flow benefit. Why would anyone not make that investment?”
The project involved approximately 900m2 of solar panels – 539 solar modules in total – mounted across three of the cellar’s roofs. This installed capacity is producing a total 726 kWh a day, with around five hours at 140 kWp (peak). To put this in perspective, an average family of four consumes in the region of just 30 kWh to 35 kWh a day.
Excluding batteries from the system was a critical decision; their use would have doubled the cost of the installation and negatively impacted the financial cost-benefit analysis. Instead, Eskom’s grid will be used to supplement demand in times of shortage, and a sink in times of excess production. At night and during the harvest season, the farm will continue to rely on Eskom. Excess power is, however, fed back into Eskom’s grid. Eskom made the linkage possible and easy.
The project was outfitted entirely by enerGworx, a Cape Town-based turnkey alternative energy provider, using locally designed and manufactured products:
- SESSA member MLT Drives supplied the inverters, two AfriSun70 systems which are designed and built in South Africa. Established in 1986, MLT Drives delivers affordable and sustainable energy solutions for homes and offices, with a full range of custom applications including solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, inverters, energy saving water heaters and complete hybrid energy systems. Its cutting-edge research lab boasts 10 electrical engineers including 1 PhD and 4 Masters from world-class universities.
- The polycrystalline photovoltaic modules were procured from Solaire Technologies, a French-owned company with a local manufacturing plant in Cape Town.
According to the installation teams, there were no real challenges to overcome, and the project ran extremely smoothly, as is always the case when professional teams are at work and world class products used.
Project successes include:
- Being completed in just eight weeks with no interruption to Villiera’s daily operations.
- Villiera being named as Marks & Spencer’s International Plan A Supplier of the Year, the first time the award has gone outside the United Kingdom. Plan A is a sustainability programme that involves ‘doing the right thing’.
- The winery expecting to see the project pay for itself within the next six years.
- The site has been running for close to a year without a single problem to date.
- Numerous international visitors have visited the site and they have indicated that it surpasses international standards.
However, Simon doesn’t even rank these as the most important. “What is so critical to me is that, since the photovoltaic installation, everyone working on the farm – family and workers – has become energy aware. Vital, too, is that we are educating ourselves about energy and electricity.
“We’ve also identified other areas where we could cut our reliance on the grid, and make better use of what we are generating. Each of these would have been a viable project on its own, but the photovoltaic installation made it obvious how much more we could do.
For example, Villiera will remove 5 transformers and overhead cables running through the game reserve area of the farm; they won’t be necessary. It will move pumps, reroute pipes, reduce friction and install a hydro turbine on the freshwater supply from Theewaterskloof Dam to make getting water to and around the farm more energy efficient.
In addition, old farm bakkies are being replaced with light, silent electric vehicles that can do the same work silently at a fraction of the price.
As a result, Simon expects a 50% cut in energy usage within 5 years.
According to Simon, Villiera is becoming energy empowered, and that’s a very powerful place to be. However, there’s much to be done to reach the place where the perfectionist would like to be.
“When energy gets into your system, you are always looking at how the basics are done, where there are huge opportunities to save.
“We know that we may need to find a way to cool the panels to get greater efficiency. Also, cleaning the panels is a small challenge, we could have laid them out differently, and the roofs are slightly too flat to be ideal, but as a pilot and proof of operation, we are very happy. We may even attract more solar visitors than wine tasters.
“One thing’s for certain,” he said, as he pointed out across the dark Stellenbosch farm to the brightly lit chicken sheds in between it and Cape Town, “we always will be on course if we do the right thing.”
This project highlights that the country’s solar industry has the skills and resources to design, manufacture and install world class systems. Indeed, South Africa and SESSA members have the capacity to keep up with a growth in demand. Yet, it is not being given opportunity to do so because the demand for these systems is so low, and the market is growing at a pace far behind those in developed countries in Europe and the Americas.
The Villiera Wines solar project brought about by the Grier’s vision should teach other business and industry leaders to evaluate solar in a difference way – not as a socially desirable ‘do good’ initiative but as a low risk, high return investment opportunity.