Tim James: The Cape harvests with little help from Eskom
By Tim James, 30 January 2023
A month into 2023 and the Cape’s wine-grape harvest is under way in the warmer areas and with the earlier-ripening varieties. The producer organisation VinPro is expecting a smaller crop than those of recent years – one contributing factor, especially in the intensively irrigated areas, being the lack of electricity needed for irrigation pumps. But it is especially now, as the grapes flow relentlesly into the cellar, that Eskom’s rolling blackouts will be giving the winemaking teams anxiety headaches – and in many cases huge extra expense.
Obviously, most have been expecting the power problem: for some time load-shedding hasn’t seemed likely to end. The sound of generators kicking in as the grid shuts down is going to be competing with that of the pumps, cooling systems and crusher-destemmers they power, and of tractors bringing in the grapes.
More serene will be the contribution of solar power for those who had the foresight and – even more important – sufficient capital to install it in time. In fact, in the little random survey I’ve been conducting into how winemakers are coping with power uncertainty, I’ve been rather surprised at just how much solar photovoltaic power plant there already is in the winelands. In some cases it can only be supplementary to grid supply (especially when there is insufficient battery storage to hold the power generated during the sunny hours), but some wineries can generate essentially enough electricity to keep them going at full strength.
Bruwer Raats of Raats Family Wines in Stellenbosch told me that they have been “almost fully reliant on solar for most of last year already”. In fact, the main reason he kept the connection to the grid was to prepare for the time when private solar producers will be able to sell off any excess to feed the grid. (Just recently, the City of Cape Town announced that the National Treasury is allowing it to buy privately generated electricity from households and businesses). At the launch of the latest Tokara wines last week, they spoke of the new 780 kW solar plant that will be used for the power needs of the 2023 harvest.
Solar power does, of course, also fit into the sustainability plans of many wineries. Vrede en Lust was one of pioneers, a decade back. In the vineyard, a row of solar photovoltaic panels (350 metres long and with a surface area of 1500 square metres, supplementing the rooftop panels) converts sunlight into electricity while the vines convert it into grapes. An even larger power plant is that of DGB at their Wellington winery. In a blog for WOSA, Malu Lambert reported that the 6200 m2 of panels make this the largest rooftop plant in the local wine industry. Other wineries with substantial investments in PV power generation include Aaldering, Blaauwklippen, Cederberg, Klein Constantia and Môreson (very appropriately that one, given the name). There must be many others too at a range of capacities – and undoubtedly many more regretting that they didn’t get down to it already.
The installers of solar arrays must, I imagine, be licking their lips in anticipation of further orders. Suppliers and salespeople of standby generators must have had a happy Christmas.
As the DGB example indicates, it’s not just the well-heeled estates that are buying their way into independence from Eskom (and its mostly coal-powered stations). Perdeberg Winery in Paarl, with a vast volume of grapes coming in for vinification, does have a 330kW solar plant, but this meets only a quarter of their power demand. “During load-shedding”, they say, “we rely on a generator that keeps us at an 85% operational level. Only a certain percentage of our cooling system is not active during load-shedding stages, thus to a certain extent we can continue with business as usual.” But if load-shedding reaches stages 5 and 6 with four-hour blackouts, some of the cooling supply is not active, and “the team has to carefully manage and, where possible, reduce our daily intake planning”.
The cost of all this is enormous. There’s the capital cost of installing solar systems, and Perdeberg, for example, says they may use 5000–7000 litres of diesel per week. Smaller producers are also hard hit, especially as they tend to lack any solar backup. Lukas van Loggerenberg, in rented space where the landlord supplies a generator which can keep things ticking over if necessary, guesses that he might be spending an extra R30 000 per month. And apart from the fuel costs, Francois Haasbroek (Blackwater, CanCan) points out that, vital as a generator is, with intermittent power supply, it does not “mitigate the effect of electric charges on fine components, so malfunctions and breakages on things like control panels are common – and they are expensive to fix or, worse, to have to replace!”
As for cellars where a number of collaborating winemakers are vinifying, load-shedding just adds to the complications (and, I dare say, the occasional bit of tension) of jockeying to use the equipment. Jocelyn Hogan Wilson of Hogan Wines, is one of a group who make wines in the Zorgvliet cellar. There is a little solar power and a generator, but the pressure on organising is inevitably going to be greater this year. One small adjustment Jocelyn plans to make this year is to conduct her natural fermentations in smaller vessels, which will make cooling easier.
So, never fear, wine-lovers, harvest will be happening despite load-shedding! Farmers and winemakers are resilient – they have to be. ’n Wynboer maak altyd ’n plan. But give a little thought for the added anxiety this year; not to mention the heavy burden of extra costs.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.
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