Benjamin Franklin was wrong. There are loads of things which are guaranteed beyond death and taxes. In South Africa, for example, you know that you’ll be facing a massive 8% hike in electricity fees every year for the next five years, thanks to Eskom’s planned increases. It’s something we’re all just going to have to put up with, no matter how much it hurts.
All of us, that is, apart from Inus.
Inus Dreckmeyr and his family live completely ‘off grid’. That means that his house is disconnected from the Eskom power network, and every drop of electricity he needs is generated on site. There’s not a single cable connecting his home to the outside world, yet in six years of living there he’s never suffered a power cut.
When you imagine someone living without mains electricity in South Africa there are two possibilities that might come to mind. The first is the all too common problem of out-and-out poverty: according to Stats SA, the official compiler of South African statistics, 15% of the population still has no access to electricity through no choice of their own – almost half of all households in Limpopo cook with paraffin or wood every day.
The second image conjured might be that of the middle class eco-warrior, living in a caravan in the woods out of choice and passion for all things environmental. With his long salt-and-pepper ponytail and goatie, you might mistake Dreckmeyr for an anti-capitalist protester or survivalist living off-grid to make a point.
While Dreckmeyr is very environmentally conscious, and does believe that people are rather too cavalier about the sources of their energy than they should be, he’s far from hair-shirted. He’s the very successful managing director of Netshield South Africa, an IT firm which bills itself as an “electronic research and development house”, which essentially means that it will design and build just about any system for any purpose. Netshield is more than a systems integrator, though, in many cases its high end server-room products are South African-designed and built. Through Netshield, Dreckmeyr has worked in most areas from access control to renewable generators for rural police stations to energy saving methods for the data centre.
His home life is about as far from any geeky or recycling-obsessive stereotype as you can get too. His beautiful and impeccably tasteful five bedroom house with its vaulted ceilings is almost certainly nicer and has more mod cons than yours. It also has one of the best views I’ve seen in the entire country from its giant patio which opens out onto an almost sheer drop.
The house design is as much about Dreckmeyr’s practical engineering background as it is for aesthetics, though. Those high ceilings and raked floors aren’t just for effect, they help airflow move through the house keeping it cool in the summer and minimising heating requirements in the winter months.
“We run five fridges and there’s a TV in every room,” says Dreckmeyr, “We’re not roughing it at all.”
There’s also a state of the art security system and two electric gates between his house and the road.
While the house is incredible on the inside, it’s what’s outside that interests us. Just inside the ironwork gateway there’s a large 8×3 array of 200W photovoltaic panels, which sits on top of a purpose built outhouse and capable of producing 4.8KW of energy at their peak.
Next to this is a single wind turbine, which is sadly in pieces for repairs when I visit. The generator building, which is about the size of a large double garage, houses three MPPT circuits and power inverters which balance the output of the panels, and a back-up diesel engine just in case. In the next room, there are 32 batteries which keep the house running at night.
The solar array itself is mounted on a motorised carriage designed by Dreckmeyr, which keeps the panels running at their most efficient by turning them as the sun passes overhead. At night, the whole thing swings back into position. Dreckmeyr reckons he increases the output of the panels by about 70% this way.
When the amount of energy being produced by the panels is surplus to domestic needs, the output is switched over to charging the batteries. When they’re full, the borehole pump is switched on and the water tower on a nearby hill – which supplies the house with high pressure water – is refilled. It’s an elegant design which follows a hierarchy of needs, and one which works, too.
So long as the family is reasonably careful about its energy use, there’s no need to compromise on a modern lifestyle. And the fact that they keep a careful eye on the amount of energy being generated and used on the plot has been a great tool for teaching the kids about environmental responsibility and the finite nature of any resource.
“There’s a lot of selfish, destructive attitudes towards energy use in the world,” Dreckmeyr says, “But they’ll stay until people realise they’re only spiting themselves.”
As residents of the Isle of Eigg – an entire Scottish island which runs off of renewables – discovered, balancing power use at peak times and making sure things like washing machines are only run when there’s surplus power being generated from renewables is one of the most important things to learn if you’re going to wean yourself off of the mains.
For Dreckmeyr, though, there was a lot of chicken and egg in the decision to abandon Eskom. When he and his wife began to plan their dream house, it became clear that self-sufficiency was the only option available to them.
Driving out of Pretoria to the north-east he explains that he and his wife lived in a house by the road, which owned quite a large area of mostly useless scrub land behind it. To create their new home, they sold the original house and a small plot with, and used the money to finance a new building in between the two peaks of the hill behind it. It’s a beautiful spot, invisible from the main road, with a steep driveway that snakes a full kilometre and a half uphill and a vertical drop overlooking the plains behind it. Dreckmeyr keeps goats to keep the grass around the driveway in check.
When it came to powering their house, however, the Dreckmeyrs had a problem. Connecting to the grid would mean paying Eskom to install a step-up transformer by the road side, cable all the way up to the house, and then fit a step-down transformer to bring the voltage back in line with domestic supply. On top of the huge costs involved with that, Dreckmeyr figured that a kilometre and a half of unguarded cable would be too tempting a target for thieves. Going solar meant a big up-front cost, but with no electricity bills in the future and no worries about it being lifted in the night, the sums started to make sense.
“The amazing thing is that there’s no real regulations around this,” Dreckmeyr says, “There’s nothing that really encourages you to invest in renewables, but very little stopping you too.”
Could you go off-grid in the same way? Certainly solar prices are falling fast, Dreckmeyr reckons his system would have cost between R500 000 and R600 000 when he designed it. Now he believes he could build the same set-up for about half that – and a smaller array, which would be typical for a cluster home, would be much less.
“Even six years ago things like energy saving light bulbs were hard to get hold of here,” he observes, “But as we’ve seen the price of energy rise radically over the last five years, and the subsidies that flowed from the government dry up, more people are investing in renewables.”
Even today, South African energy prices are still low compared to global averages. A sign that big annual rises aren’t likely to go away soon. The problem for most of us that most of the cost, space and maintenance for a system like Dreckmeyr’s is tied up in the battery storage. Overseas, where domestic photovoltaic power is huge even in the UK (yes, solar panels do produce energy when it’s cloudy), local storage isn’t a problem. Solar panels can be connected to the grid, so that you can buy electricity from the main provider to top up the amount you produce when needed, and even sell surplus energy generated back to the power stations at a very good price.
In South Africa, however, it’s still not possible to connect on-site renewable generators to the grid. Even large industrial installations, such as the one at Mustek’s warehouses in Midrand, have to operate on a separate circuit to the mains connection or be turned off when there’s a power cut on the grid, because South African infrastructure can only cope with electricity flowing one way.
That’s changing, but slowly. And it’s something that Dreckmeyr thinks will kickstart interest in more people buying smaller scale panels for their roofs. That, and the fact that rising Eskom prices may finally get South Africans to wake up to the finite nature of their power supply.
“If we can get past the point where people have to store their energy locally instead of being able to connect to the grid and sell it back to Eskom, and we can make them conscious of these utilisation cycles…” he says, “The main thing is that we need to leave something behind for our kids and the rest of the world, and the problem is that the way we treat electricity at the moment means we’re not going to do that.”