Solar power: How a Cape school is making it real
Global investors use Bitcoin to buy into the project
Some 2,500 hours of sunlight a year make South Africa an ideal environment for solar power. With year-round sunshine and an annual 24-hour global solar radiation average of around 220W/m², South Africa’s local resource is one of the highest in the world.
Lionel Chanarin was a teacher at the Waldorf School in Stellenbosch in 2015 when a unique opportunity presented itself for him and his pupils to help save the world.
With Eskom threatening a never-ending barrage of load shedding and the future of South Africa’s sustainable energy in question, he was informed about a remarkable cryptocurrency-driven initiative that might allow his class to take back control of their environmental futures.
Chanarin suggested using an online marketplace known as The Sun Exchange where, for a small investment of R100 for his pupils and a minimum R1,000 for their parents, pupils of Waldorf could have the chance to literally power their own education by purchasing and then leasing solar cells that would provide electricity to their school.
“The kids were excited; there was a lot of hype around the sustainability of South African energy at the time,” said Chanarin. “Our pupils became the very proud owners of solar panels, which made them proud of themselves, their school, and excited that they would be contributing to the improvement of the world’s energy efforts.”The Sun Exchange, an online marketplace started in 2015 by UK-born entrepreneur Abraham Cambridge, is the first company that uses cryptocurrency markets such as Bitcoin to generate a network of stakeholders who share a common goal – clean, renewable energy.
“Most companies and communities don’t have the capital outlay required to own a personal solar panel, or even a roof for many people living in flats. It is usually out of reach,” said Cambridge, who said the cost of a solar panel is around R120,000. “By separating the solar panels into base units of solar cells, we have made it available to everyone.”
Inspired by his background in ecological engineering and crowdfunding initiatives that took off in the UK before 2014, Cambridge found that obstacles such as bureaucracy and reliance on government funding meant that an alternative, innovative approach to inciting stakeholders to conglomerate their cash to a common goal was required.
“We created a platform where an individual can purchase and install a solar cell in a project of their choice, earning returns on their lease agreements and avoiding bureaucracy,” he said.
The use of cryptocurrency, specifically blockchain technology, as fundamental to the project means that investors from all over the world can use “transnational money” that enables them to have solar panels operating in parts of the world that really need them.
“By using crypto markets, we can ensure that people who have already made a lot of money on markets like Bitcoin don’t just have their money sat in digital wallets,” said Cambridge. “They can put that currency to use and convert theoretical wealth into tangible solar energy.
“Most of our customers opt to earn in Bitcoin,” he said. “It’s a less frightening and risky way to start understanding cryptocurrency markets than investing directly in Bitcoin.”Cambridge found that South Africa represented the perfect environment to pilot the initiative, and moved here to continue building the project. Of the 4,500 active Sun Exchange members, the lion’s share are South African.
“South Africa can be entirely reliant on solar,” he said. “The country has an abundance of sunshine, and also lithium, which is ideal for this operation. It is a solution where we can eliminate the carbon emissions of one of the dirtiest grids in the world.”
South Africa’s carbon emissions are comparably some of the highest globally. According to the International Energy Agency, which estimates carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of coal, natural gas, oil and other fuels, South Africa ranked 14th on a table listing the worst energy guzzlers.
“South Africa has, up to now, been totally dependent on coal and gas,” said Cambridge.
Cambridge suggests that a solar panel operating in South Africa has the potential to reduce four times the carbon emissions of a solar panel placed in Western Europe, and Lionel says that the Waldorf School’s electrical output since switching to solar has exceeded expectations, with a surplus being generated and spilling over to nearby farms.Hannah Laubser, 14, is a Grade 9 pupil at the Waldorf School. She invested R1,000 in her school’s solar project with Sun Exchange and says that the opportunity to “make the world a better place”, and the fact that she can make some extra pocket money every month, makes her extremely happy.
“I’ve taken initiative and, although it’s a small contribution, I’m excited that we’re doing something to make our futures better,” she said.
Laubser says the project has taught children at the school the importance of generating clean, sustainable energy.
“It makes us more aware of what’s happening in the world,” she said. “It’s definitely better than Eskom too!”
Cambridge describes the attitudinal changes that a project like this has on children as “profound”.
“A child owns their own solar panel, and they can directly understand the advantages of renewable energy,” he said.
According to Cambridge, the Sun Exchange plans to expand “tenfold” over the next 12 months, adding two projects a month to the five it has already completed, which include solar operations at Knysna Elephant Park and CROW Wildlife Rehabilitation. One of their goals is to electrify an entire village in Lesotho.
“That is the kind of project where the end user is unbankable,” he said of the rural village of Ha Makebe. “By electrifying these communities, we can expect endless economic and social change for the people who most need it.”The numbers behind solar energy
R120,000 – the approximate cost of a solar panel
4,500 – the number of active members of the Sun Exchange
14th – South Africa’s ranking on the list of worst consumers of non-renewable energy globally.
100% - The percentage of South Africa’s energy use that Abrahams believes can be powered by solar.