Combat Load Shedding with Alternative Energy Solutions for SMEs

Published: 24 March 2023

As South Africans, the notion of load shedding is not only disheartening, but its persistence adds to the frustration. It affects not only our daily routines, from transportation delays to being unable to cook dinner at home – but it also greatly affects the small business sector. With power cuts lasting an average of 2 to 4 hours, this equates to a mounting loss of productive hours in a single workday. 

For many small businesses nationwide, particularly those in the manufacturing sector, access to electricity is essential to operating equipment. Interruptions in electricity supply can impact production for a variety of industries, ranging from apparel to bakers, print shops to furniture. Electricity cuts are directly resulting in production cuts, job losses, and loss of income. 

Fortunately, as entrepreneurs we are known for our adaptability, resourcefulness and determination when it comes to challenges. We continuously search for innovative solutions and adaptable approaches to overcome obstacles. 

To put the power back in your hands we’ve curated a list of alternative energy solutions for every type of budget and industry to help your small business survive load shedding in the months and years to come. 

The Trusted UPS 

A UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) is a device that provides battery backup when your regular power source fails. It enables you to conserve electricity from the grid for use during power interruptions. There are many options depending on your budget and energy needs. Choose from convenient, ready-to-use options that can be acquired from local retail stores or, opt for a custom installation, tailored to your energy consumption needs. While it may not reduce your energy expenses, a UPS provides stability during load shedding and power outages – ensuring a constant power supply for your business. 

UPS systems are often paired with commercial generators, due to the fact that UPS systems cannot supply power for long periods of time. Therefore, it is important to assess your needs and what the best option is for your business. On its own, a UPS is ideal for a solo entrepreneur wanting to stay online or power their laptop during a short power outage. The cost of a UPS can range from R500 – R8000.

Power Up with a Generator

A generator can incur unforeseen costs, due to refuelling, but is a great alternative energy solution for businesses that rely on equipment to survive. Whether coffee machines, sewing machines or other equipment – there are different types of generators to choose from depending on your power needs. 

Portable generators are more affordable than permanent generators but have a limited operating time. They may also require several refuels during long-term outages. A permanent generator is capable of operating automatically upon signs of power loss – they offer a hassle-free, reliable source of emergency power for businesses of any size and provide longer run times and higher power outputs compared to portable models. They can run on different fuels, allowing you to choose the most readily accessible fuel in your area.

How do you know if a generator is the right choice for your business? There are generators to suit just about every type of business, so you can rest assured that operations can continue without power. Key industries that should prioritise getting a backup generator are, manufacturing companies, agriculture businesses, processing plants and commercial companies. If your business process relies heavily on machinery, equipment and tools – power outages can lead to huge losses. Similarly, a few hours of down time for businesses that do their part to contribute towards the country’s stability and economy (hospitals, schools, state buildings etc) can be devastating. If you’re ready to take the leap, generators can range from R4000 – R60000 depending on your needs – and can be vital when preventing disaster. 

Stepping Up with an Inverter

If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed with all this information, bare with us! We know it can be a lot, so let’s break it down. What is an inverter and how exactly is it different from a UPS? 

An inverter is a device that transforms power stored in external batteries into electricity. It operates by converting DC (direct current) stored in the battery into AC (alternating current). Inverters regulate the flow of electrical power, which means they can only power things plugged into them. You’ll need to keep them charged so they’re operational during load shedding. 

An inverter and a UPS are different in terms of the time it takes for them to provide power supply from batteries in the event of a power failure. An off-line UPS switches to battery power within 3 to 8 milliseconds, while an inverter takes 25 to 500 milliseconds. For computers and sensitive medical equipment that cannot afford to lose power even if there is a short lag, a UPS is best. True online double-conversion UPSs also regulate and monitor electricity flow, providing protection against line abnormalities like surges, voltage fluctuation, under voltage, over voltage, spikes, and noise.  However, it is important to remember, UPSes are only intended to provide power for a short period of time, enough to save programs and data and correctly shut down a device. They are not intended to supply power over an extended period, and so an inverter is recommended if your business requires power for an extended period.  

Trying to decide whether an inverter is the right choice for you? If you have a small business or home office that requires power backup for computers, printers, and other basic electronics, have a retail store and need to keep cash registers and point-of-sale systems operational during power outages, or need to power any other tools and equipment that can tolerate a brief power interruption, then an inverter is for you. If your equipment is sensitive to power outages, you can always use a UPS and an inverter together – allowing the seamless transition of power for a longer time period. 

Solar Panels 

Now this may be the most costly option to combat load shedding, but the long term benefits (for your business and the environment) will outweigh the upfront costs in time. For SMEs, investing in solar offers long-term savings on electricity rates and protection against unpredictable price increases and power outages. What’s more, major municipalities across South Africa (with Cape Town leading the charge) are allowing commercial and residential property owners to feed renewable energy back into the power grid. All energy systems which aim to feed energy back into the grid need to submit an SSEG application.

Solar power provides the freedom to control business hours, unlike relying on Eskom. There are also a wide range of options available to meet the unique needs of your small business. Solar systems are fully customisable and can be started small and upgraded later on. You have the flexibility to choose the number of solar panels that best suit your needs, whether it be five, twenty or just one panel.

For SMEs, solar power offers the flexibility to design a power supply that suits your specific needs. You can choose to go completely solar or use it as a backup option in case of load shedding. A battery-only solution is ideal for backup use since it’s quiet, fuel-free, and pays for itself quickly. Solar panels can still be installed without disconnecting from the grid, allowing you to draw from it when needed. A hybrid solution, combining solar panels and backup batteries, is another option if you want to generate and store your electricity. Ultimately, the choice is yours. 

How do you know if going solar is the right decision for you? As mentioned, it might initially be a costly affair, but the long-term benefits will make up for it. If you have the infrastructure, make the jump – and if you’re concerned about finances, start off slow.  

Load shedding can pose a significant challenge for small businesses, causing frustration, disruption and financial loss. The long-term risk of not having a plan will inevitably be detrimental. Implementing a contingency plan and strategy can offer some degree of protection and help to mitigate the negative impact on your business during this nationwide power crisis.

At Retail Capital, we understand how essential an uninterrupted power supply is to the success of your business. We also understand the financial implications of making sure your business is fully equipped to mitigate the knock. That’s why we’re here to provide upfront funding – empowering you to seize opportunities and strive for success.