Brownouts and blackouts are common across Africa, as inadequate energy systems struggle to supply the continent’s growing power needs. In South Africa, PacB Power Solutions have been steadily carving out their own niche in the generator industry to make up the shortfall.
South Africa’s energy crisis came to a head in 2015, with perennial energy shortages causing regular inconvenience and impeding the country’s economic growth. South Africa’s energy utility Eskom struggled to cope with the country’s demands for power, with many citizens and businesses becoming familiar with the much-maligned “load shedding” and frequent losses of power as a result.
While the government and Eskom declared a detailed plan to bring South Africa’s energy production up to speed, it is likely to take some time to complete. By the South African government’s own admission, its first priority was to stabilise Eskom’s finances to the point where they could begin working on new plants and power-saving measures, delaying full power supply for some time and requiring extensive government intervention. By most estimates, the electricity problem is not likely to be solved before the early 2020s.
With Eskom’s finances in order, the government in South Africa has established a war room to tackle their energy shortages, and they are having success against the managed blackouts. While there were 99 days of scheduled power cuts in 2015, the number of scheduled incidents fell dramatically after August. Efforts to bring new power plants online are underway, with two new coal-fired power plants to add 9,500 megawatts of power to the grid under construction while a third plant is being budgeted at R111.1 billion.
An effort to expand into nuclear power has also been scheduled, although allegations of corruption have slowed the process and the government has yet to establish how the bill will be paid. Hydropower, gas and diesel generation are also on the cards, along with deals with the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo to buy power from their Grand Inga hydropower plant.
Lighting the darkness
To cover the gap, companies like PacB Power Solutions have begun offering a wide variety of generator and alternative power solutions to African businesses and private customers. Initially established in 2006, PacB’s primary focus is on industrial generators, with units ranging from 10kVA to 25000kVA and covering a wide range of industrial applications.
Industrial customers have been severely hampered by the ongoing load-shedding brownouts, with some sources suggesting that South Africa’s industrial growth has been slowed enough to risk major economic concerns and even national stability. Industry requires a constant supply of power. Shortages lead to lost production time, require potentially costly restarts and may even cause losses of product and materials. For many industries, reliable and immediate backup generator supply is essential, even if the cost of running and maintaining generators is high.
In terms of the demand for PacB’s products, the company’s director Erlo Paul explained in an interview that “in the past there was a slightly higher demand for smaller units but due to a variety of factors more and more office parks, malls, apartment blocks etc. have identified the need for a generator causing the demand for our product to change from smaller units to larger units.
“While we do still cater to clients who are price sensitive the majority of our clients have become more brand-conscious and would rather purchase and install the well-known brands to avoid having to replace the product in the near future. We have also become aware of the fact that many smaller businesses can no longer afford to consider purchasing a generator, due to the South African economy, which is unfortunate but the harsh reality.”
Since the energy crisis began to bite in around 2008, PacB have supplied generators to mining, industrial, commercial, hospital and private clients of all kinds, providing critical replacement power systems to support their clients operations, while also providing a full service including transport, custom generators, rigging, technical advice and maintenance support.
One of their flagship products is the No-Break system, a backup system which can bring two generators to full power supply with less than five minutes’ notice, providing a counter to scheduled load-dumping blackouts. The system has provisions installed to monitor grid supply, synchronise the generators with the outside world and monitor the supply levels until they return to normal. It can also respond to shortages that result in an entire cut in power, able to immediately produce a stable power supply and switch back to the grid once it’s back online automatically.
They also provide “island mode”, with generators that can serve as the sole source of power for the entire home or facility, isolated from all other mains supply. This is useful both for remote locations isolated from the supply and areas where continuous operation is critical and random power shortages can cause unacceptable losses. Generators of this type, fitted with specialist cowlings to reduce noise and pollution, are currently being installed in BP petrol stations across Gauteng thanks to a partnership with PacB.
Powering the future
While PacB have done well in the energy-starved South African economy at present, their true focus is not on simply riding the wave, but in expansion and brand-building. As Mr Paul explained, “we would like to continue expanding and serving the industrial generator market successfully to ensure that we become a household name in back-up power. Keep your eye on PacB, we’re planning on taking the future by technological storm.”
With many African economies shifting straight to the high-tech, power-hungry IT and industrial systems that other countries developed over time, the potential for an energy crunch is higher as economic development and therefore demand outpaces state and civil power utility supply. PacB have already run an office in Malawi, one of Africa’s fastest-growing countries, for several years, and they’ve recently opened a branch in the Democratic Republic of Congo as well, aiming to expand their business internationally.
Even in areas where power crunch isn’t yet a problem, unreliable or underdeveloped power infrastructure means that backup generators like PacB’s are vital for industrial and commercial concerns across Africa.