Electricity for all
Technology developer iXocel Solar is lighting up homes and businesses across South Africa with its innovative solar electrification solutions.
Much of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), a province of South Africa, is rural and without electricity, meaning many have to rely on wood fuel, candles and paraffin for lighting and cooking. It is a stark example of how South Africa’s poor rural electrification rates, of just 50-60 per cent, are leaving more than two million households without access to power.
KZN-based technology company iXocel Solar is addressing the region’s desperate need for electricity. “Our company was born out of the realisation that electricity could be accessible to anybody, as long as we could harness the energy of the African sun at an affordable cost, and yet have a reliable and quality product,” explains Managing Director Greg Wenzler.
IXocel began by developing a basic, portable home kit system, which progressed to become a static system that could be installed into a home permanently to provide electrification. Unlike smaller DC solutions before it, iXocel’s system looked like a regular AC installation complete with distribution board, light switches and decent lights.
“Ideas started flowing in terms of what was possible in affordable off-grid solutions, and we soon progressed to providing mobile business trailers and showrooms that were fully electrified, including mobile cold rooms and butcheries operating totally off solar energy,” Wenzler adds.
Demonstrating the technology
IXocel’s electrification solution uses photovoltaic (PV) panels to convert solar energy into Direct Current (DC) electricity, which is then used to charge a battery or battery bank. This battery becomes the power source for lights and other electrical appliances, including televisions, fridges, DVD players and microwaves.
These machines are usually manufactured to run off Alternating Current (AC) from the grid, in which case they cannot run off DC from a solar-powered battery. To solve this problem, iXocel provides specialised systems and appliances built to run off a 12-24V DC battery system. Crucially, the company also has the in-house capability to convert readily available AC appliances to run off DC.
Despite the brilliance of iXocel’s solution, it has not been easy marketing solar energy to the KZN population. The technology is “not very well understood in general,” comments Wenzler, “and there seems to be a general scepticism about its effectiveness and benefits.”
This has made it difficult to break into the market, as the key decision makers for large projects tend to be hesitant to be the first to try new technology. Knowing that the only way to overcome this scepticism was to give people confidence in the technology, iXocel developed mobile showrooms that would enable it to take its IPM 45 system – complete with TV, DVD, DSTV, fridge and lights – out to people, to show them how the system works in practice. IXocel agents and franchisees are required to buy one of these showrooms in order to help them make sales.
Products and services
IXocel’s central objective is to provide “off-grid electrification at an affordable price, targeted essentially at the home owner and small business owner,” says Wenzler.
“Our solution is decentralised, meaning that each home or business owner can have their own power generator and not have to rely on centralised power generation, typically provided by governments at a high cost and with long lead times. The beauty of solar energy, after the capital costs are paid for, is that it is free – no more monthly electricity bills.”
The company’s services can be summarised into four product offerings:
The PowerMaster range of products provides electrification of homes to meet the needs of various customers. The simplest system, IPM 7, provides internal and external lighting as well as cell-phone recharging capability, while the biggest system, IPM 45, runs eight internal lights, two external lights, 307L fridge/freezer, 32in TV, Blue-Ray DVD, DSTV, fan and a radio. Applications include RDP and GAP housing, farms and chalets in areas outside of the grid-connected and eco-friendly estates.
The POWERLITE is a portable, compact and versatile power source that serves primarily as an emergency pack but can also be used for recreation and convenience. It weighs only 3kg and serves as a light source and a charger for small DC appliances such as mobile phones.
12V DC security floodlights are SABS audited and approved, as well as waterproof for outside use. They run off solar energy and comprise 24 LED lights suited to lighting car parks, business premises, homes, schools, billboards, fields and streets.
Solarised mobile business premises/trailers have sufficient electrification for running lights, TVs, DVDs, fridges, printers, copiers and whatever else a travelling business may need. There is also a mobile butchery/cold room available, where a large portion of the trailer is a refrigerated cold room capable of generating sub-zero temperatures.
IXocel’s flagship product, the PowerMaster, offers “greater autonomy and wider application” than the smaller and cheaper DC kit products available, says Wenzler.
“Whereas these [competitor] systems will typically come with a small 20W PV panel and 7Ah battery, our smallest systems utilise an 80W PV panel and 100Ah sealed battery. While these kit systems are suitable for lighting a tent at a holiday camp, the PowerMaster is designed to be installed in a home with light switches, a distribution box with regulator and lights comparable in lighting capability to the AC ones on offer.”
The majority of solar providers offer AC solar systems, which can run AC appliances but require an inverter to convert DC power from PV panels into AC. However, this inversion process reduces the system’s efficiency and ends up being far more expensive than iXocel’s PowerMaster solution.
IXocel’s line of work sees it delivering solar home systems to farms, guest homes and other off-grid locations, but its most rewarding work is individual implementations done in rural communities, where the only lighting previously was with paraffin lamps and candles.
“Now the family has lighting, a fridge and, in some cases, a TV,” Wenzler remarks. “When we return to check on the systems, it’s so rewarding to go there and see the whole family huddled around the TV watching a programme together, or children who can now do homework after the sun goes down because they have decent lighting. We have done numerous rural implementations, particularly in KZN where the impact on the lives of family members is humbling and rewarding.”
IXocel is working hard to bring these benefits to even more of KZN. The company is in talks with regional and local councils with the aim of persuading them to implement DC solar systems within the rural and RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) housing developments.
“We provide affordable service delivery solutions that can be catered for within their budgets,” comments Wenzler. “Affordability is the key to solar uptake and, this being one of our founding principles; we are playing an important part nationally in accelerating the renewable market. It is our intention to impact on the rest of Africa in the long term.”
IXocel is also helping to bring positive change through its partnership with Vusisizwe Holdings, an Enterprise Development company whose aim is to uplift communities through employment creation and social uplift. For its part, iXocel is offering entrepreneurs franchises that include mobile electrified trailers or business premises from which to operate, as well as skills training and accredited qualifications.
“Installation of the IPM systems also presents an opportunity for job creation, since the PowerMaster system is safe, low voltage and can be installed by local community members with a relatively short amount of training,” Wenzler explains. “Vusisizwe Energy Division shares our goal of making electricity and home appliances affordable to the masses. Electrification plays a significant role in social uplift and it is therefore essential to extend electricity to as many homes as possible as quickly as possible.”
Planning a solar revolution
Unfortunately, despite the ability of solar power to transform people’s lives, the initial capital costs of solar electrification are inhibiting uptake and growth of the technology. Recognising that these one-off costs prevent the homeowner or business owner from investing in solar technology, iXocel has partnered with asset finance company Capital Money to provide leasing finance for renewable energy initiatives and installations.
“In the very near future we will be able to offer clients leasing finance that will make the acquisition of renewable solar energy products affordable and allow them to pay off their purchase over a 5-10 year period,” says Wenzler. “It is a key initiative that we feel will drive the market.”
This initiative feeds into iXocel’s ultimate aspiration to “provide social uplift in the form of electrification to as many communities as it can”. Having started the ball rolling in South Africa, the company’s next course of action is to extend its business up into the rest of the continent and beyond.
“We see the beginning of a much larger uptake of our solar home systems, which will then be marketed and installed by local community members who have been trained to sell, install and maintain the systems,” Wenzler comments. “We are passionate about enterprise development and job creation, and we see our product offerings contributing to social uplift, skills development and job creation.”