Interview with Specialized Solar Systems, Business Member of Sun-Connect News Company Database
Based in South Africa, Specialized Solar Systems offers innovative products and turnkey renewable energy solutions for the agricultural, residential and commercial sectors throughout Africa; specializing in application-specific design, accurate energy assessments, installation services, training, and strong product support.
The implementation of sustainable solar energy solutions that empower indigent and disconnected communities is the heartbeat of the company’s operations with many successful projects completed.
SC News: What is your experience: which product, beyond lighting, customers request the most? And which other appliances for Solar-Home-Systems you think should be provided in future?
Peter Bergs: From our experience in the commercial sector, it is certainly grid-tied solar systems; and for the residential sector, off-grid and hybrid solar systems. The agricultural sector largely requests grid-tied and solar water pumping solutions.
For people in underserviced energy sectors following the fundamental human energy need for basic electrical lighting, which could be a torch or a single light, the request is generally for an energy source that will support cell phone charging and basic media entertainment such as a radio or television.
Working at the electrification frontier, we offer intelligent cloud-managed solar energy stations or micro-grids that power well-priced and attractively packaged appliances to the underserviced, indigent and disconnected sectors. Our packages include extremely efficient DC electrical appliances and cover the very basic energy appliances such as lighting and cell phone charging,
SC News: Right now, we see a huge focus on pay-as-you-go sale in the off-grid sector. How do you see the further development of this type of business?
Peter Bergs:Specialized Solar Systems provides a secure and integrated online platform for solar energy management which has features such as remote system monitoring, client billing, vendor management, customer notifications and automated system switching.
This framework incorporates a variety of payment or billing packages that work with upfront payments for solar energy usage. Once set up, a billing package is allocated to a SHS and the framework performs a completely automated pay-for-energy-usage debit function.
We anticipated the need for a pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) billing plan which has proven to be very successful and allows our distributors and micro-utilities the flexibility of structuring varied amounts of payment bundles. This method has proven to be very effective with incentive-based billing structures for the demographics we deal with, who are extremely price-sensitive. It also allows an end-user to pay for the duration of the energy supply.
SC News: The market in developing countries is often influenced by local corruption, insecure governmental policies, bureaucratic hurdles for customs clearance. Which obstacle is/was for your business the most challenging one – and why?
Peter Bergs: We anticipated the challenges and obstacles came as no surprise and were dealt with as they occurred, often in a random manner.
What was anticipated as expectations for corruption was re-directed and the focus placed on additional value added outside of the framework of the contractual obligation and scope of work. An emphasis was placed on making training available, accommodating a much wider group interested in alternative energy. This included the unschooled, young and old with a clear directive that it was foundation building for those who wanted to take the training further in future.
Second to this, short term employment opportunities were created where possible (catering, driving, meeting facilitation, etc.) and opportunities for shadowing our skilled technical staff were facilitated.
Where possible, attention was given to local procurement and the needs of the community were identified for upgrading assistance (orphanages, creche and day care facilities. In some instances, well placed lights were installed in areas previously avoided at night, creating a safer environment.
This mindset and resultant action most often broadened the goodwill with the community and by taking care to attribute these interventions to the local leaders involved, generated a feeling of gratitude towards them.
SC News: The off-grid sector worldwide is depending on soft loans and donations. Do you think this soft money is helpful to build the industry?
Peter Bergs:Initially yes, however, when planning for a sustainable intervention, the approach to funding should factor in hidden costs, especially in the establishment of infrastructure for maintenance and growth.
Human capital takes time to develop, as does securing the best available staff and undertaking training to change mindsets and influence work ethic. This needs to be catered for and is difficult to motivate appropriately with short-term funding solutions.
Formulating the technology mandate correctly, at an acceptable cost structure, most often takes the bulk of planning resources and the aforementioned is often neglected. It is a known expectation from funders that projects should reach a state of profitability and sustainability. Making projections purely on investor funds often results in costs becoming the ‘deal-breaker’, where soft loans and donations could have mitigated the risk.
SC News: In your view, what are the main challenges in making renewables an affordable easy-to-access energy resource?
Peter Bergs: An integrated approach will take cognisance of the multi-level planning that needs to be done. This would require input from persons skilled in people management, as well as an understanding of policy frameworks and logistics, and long term financial implications. However, if an inferior technological solution is introduced, the efforts to prop-up the resultant failures would be to no avail.
SC News: Is the off-grid market Driven More by Policy or Technology?
Peter Bergs: Technological advances and options in the off-grid market become available at an enormous speed and adaptions can be made in a relatively quick time frame. However, policies take much longer to change and is often the cause of much frustration. Where policy does not support the technology, the necessary changes need to be put in place and the results need to be evaluated before an effort is made to deploy the technology.