Tag Archives: NuRa

Nuon-RAPS (NuRa) Utility Field Visit – 30th October 2014

The STEPs team, following the meeting component of the network meeting, used the 30th October as an opportunity to visit premises belonging to the Nuon-RAPS (NuRa) utility. NuRa is one of three concessionaires currently operating in KwaZulu-Natal province, providing both solar home systems and LPG to customers. The solar home systems are provided on a fee-for-service basis, with customers visiting an energy store on a monthly basis to top up their system credit, via an electronic key. LPG is provided to customers on a direct purchase basis. NuRa had 19,005 SHS customers as of September 2013, with a net customer growth of ~1,000 per year. LPG is supplied to the company on a 30-day credit by Totalgaz, and the company also offers direct sales of ethanol gel, having also previously experimented with improved cookstove provision.

NuRa Mkuze main energy store

The NuRa main energy store at Mkuze – 30th October 2014 – Image: Xavier Lemaire

The STEPs project team visited two energy stores in the course of the day; the main energy store (and the centre of operations) at Mkuze, and a smaller energy store in Jozini. In Mkuze the team viewed the main operations of the organisation, from the process of credit top-up and LPG sale, to the equipment for the SHS, to the maintenance and repair division. In addition to this, the team observed the training procedure for new technicians on-site in Mkuze.

Topping-up credit for the SHS is done via an electronic token (magnetic key) which the customer brings to the energy store to add credit to. Maintenance teams also have a version of this token which collects operational data from the system at point of maintenance, for assessment by the company. Installations take place via car and motorcycle, and the company maintains its own fleet of vehicles. Technician training is also done on-site, with several demonstration rigs at the Mkuze store for this purpose.

The company also operates LPG bottle top-up facilities at each energy store, where customers bring empty bottles to be refilled, or purchase a new system in the case of the Shesha stoves.

NuRa training site

Technician training at the Mkuze energy store – 30th October 2014 – Image: Xavier Lemaire

NuRa test components

Testing components at the Mkuze energy store – 30th October 2014 – Image: Xavier Lemaire

NuRa bike maintenance

Motorcycle fleet maintenance at the on-site workshop – Mkuze energy store – 30th October 2014 – Image: Xavier Lemaire

In Jozini, the team visited one of the rural energy stores servicing more dispersed communities further North in KwaZulu-Natal. There they observed operations at the energy store, and also took the opportunity to have conversations with customers of the store, asking about the scale of their energy use and energy costs, as well as desires for future service (refrigeration, television). Of particular interest was the point that customers still used traditional woodfuels in addition to their LPG service, the primary driver behind this being the free availability of woodfuel to low-income consumers.

STEPs Team at the Jozini Energy Store

The STEPs team at the Jozini energy store – NuRA field visit 30th October 2014 – Image: Daniel Kerr

NuRa Jozini energy store

The Jozini energy store – 30th October 2014 – Image: Xavier Lemaire

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The Shesha gas cooker, offered by NuRa to customers, an integrated 5kg LPG bottle and single hob. NuRA field visit by STEPs 30th October 2014 – Image: Daniel Kerr

The NuRa utility offers a number of useful lessons for the STEPs project. First and foremost, that it is possible to run a successful utility targeting bottom-of-pyramid consumers on a fee-for-service basis, integrating electricity and thermal energy services. The integration of product sale, installation, maintenance and service into one site and under one company (the energy store and NuRa itself) provides resilience for the business and enables the free exchange of information, as well as increasing customer satisfaction through regular maintenance from a trusted source. Finally, the on-site training of technicians through energy stores gives the utility a strength in capacity, and prevents the need for outsourcing to other technicians, reducing costs.

– Daniel Kerr, UCL Energy Institute

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Second STEPs Network Meeting – KwaMbonambi, South Africa, 28-30 October 2014

The second STEPs network meeting was held in KwaMbonambi, South Africa from the 28th – 30th October 2014. The purpose of the meeting was to address the current status of the project and determine next steps, as well as take the opportunity to both meet local representatives from South African electricity and thermal off-grid concessionaires, and visit the operations of local concessionaires for fieldwork, which will be described in a later post on this blog.

The first day of the meeting saw a great deal of discussion among project partners as to the way forward for the STEPs project. Primary discussion focused around the construction of the STEPs model, focusing on five main aspects: institutional arrangements, business/enterprise models, financing, technology options, and policy/regulation. The project will look to test a number underlying assumptions for the sustainability of thermal energy service businesses, for example operating margins (in the 50-70% range), and the importance of using public sector clients as anchor consumers in a thermal energy business customer base.

Discussions were had on the most relevant technologies to target with STEPs. Key technologies are improved cookstoves, LPG for cooking/refrigeration, and household biogas installations, primarily for the successes seen in previous projects using these technologies. These include the Ghanaian experience in LPG stove dissemination via the government, and the vast scale of the Chinese domestic biomass gasifier program. However, challenges exist to the uptake of all these, including cultural contexts for cooking (meaning stove design needs to take social factors into account), as well as the difficulty in acquiring biomass feedstocks in some country contexts, for example Sub-Saharan/Southern Africa.

Discussion was also had about the most relevant financial and management models to target under the STEPs model, as well as which technologies these models applied best to. For example, outright/financed purchase models under a concession contract are most relevant for improved cookstoves, whereas fee-for-service and progressive purchase models are more relevant for LPG and biogas systems.

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Binu Parthan presenting to the STEPs team – 2nd Steps meeting network – KwaMbonambi, South Africa – 28th – 30th October 2014.

The second day saw representatives from local utility concessions in KwaZulu-Natal attend the STEPs meeting. The concessions represented were KES, with their CEO Vicky Basson attending, active in the Durban and central KwaZulu-Natal region, and Nuon-RAPS (NuRa), with MD Sifiso Dlamini, active in Northern KwaZulu-Natal up to the Mozambican border. The KES utility was founded in 1997, and currently services over 28,000 customers with solar home systems on a fee-for-service basis in and around the Durban area. Tariffs are set at 96ZAR/month for a solar home system, with six lights (2 outdoor, 4 indoor), and a 9V and 12V DC connection point. The company has provided LPG services, both in LPG bottles and integrated stove systems (notably the Shesha stoves from Totalgaz). Their concession is granted via a bidding process by the KZN state government and local municipalities on a yearly basis.

Questions were answered by the concessionaires that added context to the construction and future work of STEPs. These included revisions of assumptions for sustainable operating margins, insight into the regulatory framework in South Africa for LPG financing, and particularly the barriers to the use of mobile money in South Africa, due to transaction regulations in the financial sector and a lack of culture for mobile payments. Subsidy positioning from the government was also identified as a key barrier in South Africa to thermal energy use, with subsidies moving between thermal energy sources frequently.

Both concession representatives stated a desire to expand their thermal energy services business, and stated the criticality of tailored solutions to national and local contexts for technologies, an aspect of the thermal energy market that is core to the development of the STEPs model.

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Discussion between the STEPs team and Vicky Basson (KES, far left) and Sifiso Dlamini (NuRa), middle – 2nd Steps meeting network – KwaMbonambi, South Africa – 28th – 30th October 2014.

A number of conclusions were drawn from the meeting. Given the ongoing political difficulties in Lesotho, a reorientation of project objectives was proposed to take into account the changing landscape in which the project operates. Current goals are to construct the STEPs model as a resource across all sectors, being relevant to governments and policy-makers, as well as the private sector and SMEs/entrepreneurs wishing to enter the thermal energy services market.

– Daniel Kerr, UCL Energy Institute