Fuel stations save costs through solar photovoltaic power

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While it’s tough for business like a fuel service station to go completely off-grid, solar photovoltaic (PV) installations are making a large dent in electricity bills for many across the country and helping these businesses to reduce their carbon footprint, according to Tim Frankish, Managing Director of SolarSaver, an international solar energy company backed by the Pembani-Remgro Infrastructure Fund (PRIF).

“Service stations have ideal roof space, usually in full sun in open spaces, for solar PV solutions which can supplement the power for services such as retail stores which are increasingly becoming part of their service,” says Frankish. “We have completed a number of service stations and we have found that we can considerably cut electricity costs. An entire site’s daytime energy needs can be met by the new solar PV installation — including LED lighting, fuel pumps, compressors,  refrigeration, food preparation, retail and IT infrastructure.

With electricity costs up by 350% over the last decade and the grid under enormous pressure, leading retail fuel groups are grabbing the opportunity to both save costs and go green. Engen Petroleum has implemented solar PV energy production systems at various sites as part of its commitment to sustainable energy sources. Joe Mahlo, Engen’s General Manager of Sales & Marketing says “We believe that it is our duty to reduce our carbon footprint. With the largest network of service stations in the country, we see it as a good opportunity to further reduce our GHG emissions.”

Mahlo says the effective drop in energy consumption on a typical Engen site with the new solar PV system installed is about 80 000 kW/hours per year, even taking into account varying annual weather conditions. “The idea is to use solar energy during the day and revert to the national grid at night and during inclement weather conditions. This allows us the ability to save energy and to take pressure off the grid,” Mahlo explains.

SolarSaver has implemented Engen installations at 4 pilot sites to date, with a further 46 installations commencing countrywide, in October 2021.

Frankish sees great potential in the fuel retail and other retail sectors which are often structured as franchises. “If we can show great results on site supporting a group’s vision, franchisees across the country can be encouraged to adopt it.” And it’s not a hard sell – SolarSaver offers solar photovoltaic solutions on a rent-to-own basis through a proprietary zero-capital financing model, eliminating the need for an upfront capital investment on the part of franchisees. Customised systems are designed and installed free-of-charge, and clients then only pay for the greener power that is produced at significantly cheaper rates than the cost of grid power. SolarSaver also remains responsible for all ongoing monitoring, maintenance and insurance. “We’re able to build smaller systems economically and manage and maintain them in widespread geographic locations. Our offering is a ‘capex-free, hassle-free’ way to take advantage of solar power,” says Frankish.

The concept has proven extremely popular and SolarSaver now manages the largest fleet of self-financed rooftop installations in Southern Africa. While initial solutions focus on daytime power generation through grid-tied solar, SolarSaver is already starting to update existing systems to include batteries as that technology becomes more cost-effective. Solar technology is rapidly evolving and decreasing in cost. Solar panel prices have decreased by 80% since 2008 and the lithium ion batteries used in solar applications have already halved in cost over the last two years. “Our long-term goal is to provide our clients with 24-hour power solutions through fully-financed, customised solar-battery systems,” says Frankish. “In the interim, our clients get to benefit from cheaper daytime electricity costs, without the expense or hassle of purchasing and managing the systems themselves.”

Grid-tied solar installations at fuel stations like Engen can allow the energy generated on site to be remotely managed and, if needed, reallocated elsewhere by feeding excess energy back into the Eskom grid where this is permitted. Excess energy from grid-tied solar PV solutions can also be redirected to charge on-site batteries, allowing the daytime energy to be stored and used to power LED lighting or other systems at night.

Frankish says the benefits of switching to solar can be further maximised if a business has already implemented other energy-saving initiatives. Engen, for example, is implementing environmental initiatives including solar geysers, solar heat pumps and whole site conversion to LED lighting. “Overall, this is a powerful way to support the National Business Initiative (NBI) of South Africa to implement Private Sector Energy Efficiency (PSEE) projects,” Frankish concludes.

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