City gets tougher on solar power

If you have solar panels at your home, you have to register them with the City of Cape Town or risk being billed about R6 000 to have them disconnected.

While load shedding in 2008 spooked many into rigging up their own sources of electricity, you need to think carefully before going that route, especially if you want to feed power back into the grid, warns a Constantia solar-panel installer.

If the power you feed in during a black-out kills or injures a maintenance worker you could be held liable. Also, an insurer might refuse to pay out for a fire if you have an unregistered system.

These are two scenarios painted by Dr Leigh de Decker, who attended a meeting recently that was part of a City of Cape Town awareness drive on the need for small-scale embedded generation (SSEG) installations to be registered.

Dr De Decker and her partner, Mark Bleloch, installed solar panels on the roof of their Constantia home in 2014 and they now run a business installing them (“Power from the people”, Bulletin, November 13 2014).

Xanthea Limberg, Mayco member for informal settlements, water and waste services, and energy, said that since 2010 it’s been law for all SSEG installations to be registered with the City.

This applies to all permanent systems with one or more solar panels, with an average size of 250W, 1.5m2 and excluding standby or temporary systems or small solar-powered appliances such as lights, calculators, battery chargers.

Off-grid systems, or systems not connected to the grid directly or indirectly through a building’s internal wiring, such as a solar-powered pool pump, must still register with the City so that they are not mistaken for an unauthorised SSEG installation.

The regulations are in line with draft rules published by the National Energy Regulator of SA (Nersa).

The rules apply to off-grid systems with no connection to the national electricity system and to systems connected to the grid – whether or not they are intended to feed electricity back into the grid.

Ms Limberg urged people to register their systems for the safety of occupants and City staff, for grid stability and quality, the legal risk and grid cost.

“There’s much misunderstanding about the need to register these installations in order to ensure their full compliance with internationally adhered to safety standards,” said Dr De Decker.

She said that years ago there were no regulations about installing solar systems, but since their introduction, many home and business owners were still not submitting their applications to the City for approval.

The City is now insisting on enforcing these internationally accepted safety standards and has given residents until February 29 next year to have their installations approved, with no penalty.

After the grace period, the City will charge a R6 425.90 “service fee” for the disconnection of unauthorised solar connections.

Further non-compliance will invoke disconnection entirely from the City grid.

Dr De Decker said the City could readily see transgressors on aerial maps and could check the address to see if owners had the necessary approval.

Application forms are available on the City’s website and residents have to submit certificates of compliance from a registered electrician, as well as get sign-off by a professional engineer and, where required, install bidirectional meters.

The major issues of non compliance include installing non-compliant inverters, installing incorrectly sized systems and safety issues in the installation.

Dr De Decker said some solar-system owners mistakenly believed they did not need to register if they were not feeding power into the grid. She explained that if several houses were generating and using solar power and a cloud passed overhead, there was a resultant surge of electricity demand on the City’s power.

“The City has to make provision for this as it puts pressure on the electrical transformer in the area,” she said.

Milnerton resident David Lipschitz said he had no idea about the SSEG legislative requirement. He has been fighting for the right to feed power into the grid since 2010.

“The City has been promising ‘rules’ since 2009 when I installed my system, which is compliant with the American Article 690 of their National Electrical Code, because our standards weren’t fully developed.

“The City has ‘allowed’ grid tie with reverse feed – people can feed the grid, but it has made this process incredibly onerous for the electricity provider (homeowner) and very few people have these agreements in place,” said Mr Lipschitz.

He believes this new legislative requirement will drive more people away from providing electricity for themselves and, worse, it will drive away a massive opportunity for homeowners and business owners to put in bigger systems than they need so they can supply excess electricity into the grid, day and night.

“Electricity prices will continue to rocket upwards, when, in fact, there are cheaper and more efficient alternatives, which can come on stream in days rather than in decades.”

There is currently no fee for registration itself and the authorisation process is described at http://www.capetown.gov.za/solarPV.