The local elections may have been dominating the news of late, but politics isn’t the only manifestation of people power around.
Take the residents of Parkhurst in Johannesburg: they’re famous already for having changed the way urban South Africa receives the internet through collective action, and if their current project comes to fruition it could also redefine the way we receive power to our homes and manage our neighbourhood security.
Oh, and they might be sitting on one of the best “smart home” interfaces I’ve seen too.
Grassroots action, middle class style, then. What does that look like in South Africa?
Parkhurst: the backstory
The bright pink jackets of the Vumatel workers digging up my road to lay fibre optic cable this week is a stark reminder of the debt of gratitude middle class South Africa owes Parkhurst.
Just over two years ago, MTN cautiously announced the first 100Mbps fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) project in sub-Saharan Africa. It was for an exclusive lifestyle estate “set in 1 280 acres of land” and would cost a small fortune.
At the time, May 2014, super-fast broadband of the kind that is ubiquitous and cheap in many countries seemed to be a long way off for the likes of me. Certainly for as long as I lived here (two years previously I’d enjoyed uncapped 60Mbps fibre in the UK for the then equivalent of about R300 a month). No-one was seriously planning to get digging in the South African suburbs, although there was lip service from Telkom expectations of delivery were low.
And then along came Parkhurst Residents and Business Owners Association (PRBOA). Instead of waiting for one of the big network companies to come along and connect the community with fast fibre, the PRBOA put together a list of all the homes that wanted it and how much they’d be willing to pay, and offered it out to the market to decide if it was a good business model or not.
Startup networking company Vumatel saw the opportunity and the rest, as they say, is history.
As an encore, the Parkhurst residents’ association then declared its new ambition: to take the suburb completely off the energy grid and make it self-sustainable by 2020.
That’s ambitious enough. But when I’m invited to come and see the progress being made, what’s being built is so much more than I expected.
Renewable power, smart grid tech
“The project to take Parkhurst off-grid has really turned into a ‘smart grid’ project,” says Ryan Beech, who has been leading the Parkhurst 2020 project. Beech is an entrepreneur who runs a robotics and engineering company, Ryonics, and was instrumental in the original fibre plans.
Parkhurst 2020 began as a plan to help residents get “off-grid” with renewable energy, and promote more sustainable power use at the same time. The vision of Parkhurst 2020, as the project was called, was to use the same successful model as the fibre project.
Community members were surveyed about their intentions to install small scale renewables at home, and then the residents’ association went off to negotiate bulk discounts with suppliers to help bring down the cost.
In the loadshedding nightmare of early 2015, it seemed like a sensible thing to do. Solar prices were tantalisingly close to “grid parity” (where the cost of renewable energy falls to the same price as that from a traditional power station), but the up-front cost of a domestic installation was still a couple of hundred thousand rand. Plans began to look at ways to reduce the overall cost and introduce financing models to make the initial outlay more palatable too.
With kits from just R14K, uptake has been good.
There’s only so much you can do with solar panels and geysers themselves, however, and renewable energy comes with a challenge that’s more nuanced than simply sticking photovoltaic (PV) circuitry on the roof. Output from panels isn’t consistent: they can produce huge amounts of energy at 3pm, but nothing at night. So how do you store excess energy during peak hours to use when times are lean?
There are two common solutions to this dilemma: the first is to invest a small fortune into batteries to soak up the surplus electrons for evening, the second is to sell surplus back to the national grid and buy it back when you need it.
As Eskom doesn’t really allow for the second scenario here, most homeowners who buy solar panels are forced into going fully off-grid (since once you’ve shelled out for the batteries you don’t need Eskom any more).
Beech is offering Parkhurst residents a third way: if Eskom or City Power won’t come to the party and allow residents to share excess power to the national grid, they’ll do it themselves with a local one.
High tech suburban living
In order to share excess energy being generated from their home set-ups with other residents, businesses or even car charging stations planned for the area, Parkhurst residents will be encouraged to hook their solar panels up to a cloud-based community portal to share data about how much they are currently generating, what they have stored and how they want to distribute it or sell it on.
The platform, which Beech has developed and is fully open source, is called MeIO and is currently being beta tested, and can be used to monitor your current power input and use from anywhere in the world. The servers themselves run on Microsoft’s Azure platform – Beech has been through the software company’s Bizspark program – and thus are as secure as they can be in terms of data protection, although this is always likely to be a worry. Users can control what information they share from their dash with others, and even chat within the interface with other homeowners.
How can they do this with existing infrastructure? They can’t.
“We’ve tried to engage with City Power,” Beech says, “But without much success. So we’ll probably end up doing it ourselves.”
The fallback plan is that when trenches were dug through the suburb for the fibre optics, a second, empty, conduit was laid down at the same time. So if needs be, Parkhurst can push its own power cables underground through these ducts and create an entirely new grid at very little cost.
There are questions around the legalities of supplying electricity to others – Eskom is a state sanctioned monopoly provider – but Beech is confident these can be overcome.
In essence, what Beech is building is a microcosm of the much-vaunted “smart city”, where everything is connected and intelligently monitored, and the data used for the greater good.
Internet of things that you keep in the attic
The smart city is about more than sharing power, though, and so is the Parkhurst plan. With a power grid and high speed internet access behind it, MeIO is a platform not build for watching solar panels but providing a dashboard for your personal “internet of things”. Beech says that residents will be able to push feeds from almost any internet enabled device into their personal dash – such as CCTV cameras, thermostats, garden sensors, burglar alarms – and view them all in one window.
“All this stuff has been available forever,” he says, “But the problem is you don’t want 20 apps open on your desktop or phone.”
Beech wants to encourage people to use the interface as much as possible, so it will include an App Store-like area with scripts and programs for converting camera feeds, for example, or downloading tools for old laptops or cheap controllers like a Raspberry Pis to connect them usefully. An old webcam, a Raspberry Pi and an internet connection are all you need for a web-enabled CCTV system, for example. Smart home gear like internet-connected light switches or power points can also be linked and controlled through a single interface.
And all that data can be shared on a per-app basis. Which means residents can open up access to their information for others logged into MeIO as they need or want.
The potential, says Beech, will be that it can also manage power requirements for the whole neighbourhood. The key test of a smart grid is its ability to manage power generated with that in use. “We could stagger access to energy,” he says, “So send a message to all the houses in one block to turn on their pool pumps now, for example.”
More pertinently, it means that individual homes will be able to attach cameras (if they have them) to a neighbourhood watch program, if they want. Having so many cameras – potentially hundreds – connected would be impossible for a third party security company to monitor cost effectively, but Beech thinks The plan, says Beech, is to use a combination of intelligent machine monitoring and volunteers working in shifts to look for suspicious activity in the area, then alert the armed response patrols if there’s a problem.
Some of the things Beech says he’s working on include number plate recognition and ways to store potentially important parts of video feeds.
Just as with the fibre to the home plan, neighbouring suburbs are watching Parkhurst closely. At least one other residents’ association has signed already, and with rising prices from Eskom the third certainty in life, Beech says there’s plenty of other suburbs keeping an eye on Parkhurst with an eye to following suit too.
And frankly, I’m not surprised.