Solar Energy Across Continents: How Durban Borrowed From Portland

By Jonathan Ramayia

An ocean and continent apart, the distance between Durban and Portland is over 17 000 km. Even by air, the journey would take over a day. Apart from both being coastal cities, Durban and Portland share something else in common; local government commitment to take advantage of solar resources. Connected through their mutual membership in Sustainable Cities International (SCI) Network, the South African city borrowed from Portland’s Solarize Portland, a programme aimed at increasing the uptake of solar energy through economies of scale, for use in its own Shisa Solar programme. Although Solarize Portland dealt mainly with the uptake of solar panels for decentralised electricity generation and Shisa Solar with solar water heaters (SWHs), this learning demonstrates the ability of cities to successfully borrow from one another, in this case for solar energy programmes.

Shisa Solar

The city of Durban is known for its sunshine. As the premier domestic holiday destination in South Africa, the city authorities have always played to this advantage. In spite of the abundant sunshine, SWH installations across the city were minimal before Shisa Solar (‘shisa’ is the isiZulu word for ‘hot’).

The barriers to uptake included, the high cost of SWH units (against the backdrop of cheap coal-derived electricity); general lack of awareness about the technology and; not knowing which service provider to choose.

With Shisa Solar, developed by the city’s Energy Office in late-2010, the city has used simple economic principles; web-based technology and city-approved service providers to improve the uptake of SWHs. The crux of the model was that if a group of residents from a particular neighbourhood signed up to install SWHs, this would create economies of scale and would ensure that the unit and installation costs would drop, “the neighbourhood would effectively be buying-in-bulk. This was an application of simple economic principles”, notes Derek Morgan, Senior Manager of the Energy Office.

Shisa solar installation in Durban (image courtesy of Shisa Solar)

But Shisa Solar was initially conceived to be a slightly different programme from what it is now. The first iteration proposed that the city would buy SWHs in bulk, thereby making them cheaper, and would then offer installations to residents through a ‘pay-by-savings’ model. Residents would eventually pay the city back over a number of years through the electricity savings as a result of the installation. This was rejected by national government who ruled that the city would effectively be acting as a loaning agent, which was illegal.

Borrowing and adapting from Portland

While reworking their idea, the Energy Office came across the Portland model through their common association with SCI. Solarize Portland also sought to address similar barriers, but was driven by the Mt. Tabor neighbourhood who thought that if they put together their collective solar needs into a single contract for rooftop solar panels, it would attract services providers, encourage competitive bidding and ultimately bring down the price.

Eventually, the idea spread to other neighbourhoods, but before it did, a concerted effort was put in by neighbourhood volunteers and a coalition of neighbourhood associations together with the Oregon Energy Trust who began campaigning to get the residents to sign up. A series of workshops were held to provide coherent information about the technology and to promote the advantages of collective buying. By signing up, a resident would receive support and advice from beginning to the end when the installation was completed.

The Energy Office thought about using this model but Morgan explained why the community model would have been a challenge for Durban, “our municipal institutional structure does not allow for over-time payment and we predicted that running these kinds of workshops and campaigns would probably have to happen on weekends, which falls outside of municipal hours”, explained Morgan. Instead, the Energy Office opted to combine Portland’s model with its own web-based approach, where a sophisticated marketing campaign was developed in conjunction with the Shisa Solar website. By simply registering their location, requirements and contact details on the Shisa website, residents were entitled to free quotations from pre-approved SWH service providers. If there were ten or more matches from residents within the same geographic location or neighbourhood, this would entitle these residents to a 10% discount. Eventually, this discount was extended to every resident who applied through Shisa Solar.

Durban’s Shisa Solar Website where users are able to register their details and receive free quotes from pre-approved service providers

Securing council support: Shisa becomes a household name

Because Shisa Solar adopted the web-based approach, marketing was important to its success. A substantial amount of the budget was allocated to promoting the website which included radio interviews, newspaper and radio adverts, utilising social media, shopping mall campaigns, a billboard on a city landmark and inserting flyers in monthly municipal bills. The spend on a programme that consisted largely of marketing, and one that did not guarantee a deliverable, was approved by the city council for a combination of two reasons.

Firstly, the Energy Office motivated and highlighted to the city council that by continuing to use more electricity during peak hours, e.g. in the mornings when residents use hot water, the city was losing money; secondly, the programme was run concurrently with the low-cost SWH programme which eventually saw 30 000 SWHs being installed in low-cost communities across Durban. The popularity of the low-cost programme with city management gave momentum for rolling out the programme beyond the low income group and to the middle-upper income group that Shisa aims to target.

Lessons and successes

Now in its third year, Shisa Solar is the go-to place for residents seeking to find out more about SWHs. With 258 installations, the programme has benefitted the local SWH industry through the experience gained from these installations. Morgan notes that the lack of information barrier has been overcome, “since we embarked on the programme, we have noticed that the level of awareness on SWHs has improved amongst Durbanites and are encouraged to be receiving more informed queries from residents”. The city’s target of 10 000 SWHs by 2015 is ambitious, and the price barrier is still viewed as a challenge but one that Morgan and his team are working on, “we have a few ideas on how we can bring down the price even further but this is yet to be finalised. Perhaps another city somewhere has figured this out, and we welcome further learning and collaboration”. Through Shisa, SWHs cost anywhere between 1200 USD and 3600 USD, including installation.

Ensuring knowledge transfer

Cities networks and sister-city partnerships play a key role in ensuring that cities learn from one another, “the question we are always asking at SCI is how can we best support the transfer of ideas and knowledge so that cities can more effectively transition to a low-carbon world“ says Jane McRae, CEO, Sustainable Cities International Network. The programmes need not always be identical to ensure successful implementation but in cases like Shisa, they may be adapted to suit local conditions, “the Durban experience of learning through our network is providing a good indication of some of the ways in which we can do this”, noted McRae. As cities roll out their projects, they should consider the following about facilitating knowledge transfer across cities, as Morgan notes, “Solarize Portland was very well packaged. The information was clear and easy to understand. It made it easier for us to borrow and adapt some of their ideas. Peer-exchange programmes are also very useful, whether this is done via satellite or at a physical location”. The Energy Office is paying it forward by maintaining a social media presence for the programme as well as making documents about Shisa publicly available.

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About sustainablecitiesnetwork

Sustainable Cities International is a registered not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Operating since 1993, the mission of Sustainable Cities is to catalyze action on urban sustainability with cities around the world. We work by connecting and mobilizing people through the process of co-creating. We facilitate a thriving, international network of cities that act as urban laboratories: adopting, testing and improving on innovations. Ideas are accelerated through sharing of experience and cities are making transformational change a reality
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