Load-shedding has a severe financial effect on South African food production in the primary production, post-harvest and retail sector. Power interruptions may also be depriving the country of quality nutrition.

This is according to Dawie Kriel, Head of Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning & Refrigeration (HVAC&R) at Energy Partners - a leading energy solutions provider in South Africa - who says that the interrupted electricity supply is costing the local food production industry millions every month.

Kriel explains that the entire supply chain, from primary production through to the consumer, are impacted in one way or another and says that farmers are very dependent on electricity for key processes such as irrigation, livestock care and harvesting. “The biggest problem for primary production is the uncertainty around the load-shedding schedule. It is very difficult to halt  production or manufacturing processes once they are in progress.  In the dairy industry, for example, a herd of dairy cows and the infrastructure to support milk production runs predictably everyday according to the animal’s biorhythms.  It is not something that can be switched on and off at a moment’s notice.”

He explains that once the fresh milk is in the silo, it has to be treated, cooled and transported to a dairy plant for processing very carefully, to ensure that its quality and safety is maintained.  “Once in the factory, it needs to be kept at the perfect temperature and then processed through a series of heating and cooling stages to provide the milk, cheese, yoghurt, butter and many other products used daily.”

Kriel explains that the cooling plant is a crucial element and big energy user in the production process and needs to runs 24 hours per day, 365 day per year.  “While solar and wind energy can assist, is not ideal for this type of load and has to be integrated with a form of standby power generation. An efficient alternative is to look at tri-generation or combined cooling, heating and power (CCHP) systems, where heating and cooling is generated simultaneously using one, affordable energy source such as gas or coal.”

He adds that reliable energy is of equal importance in the post-harvest sector, as the long term quality and safety of food products are dependent on accurate temperature management throughout the process. “If this process is interrupted at any stage, the food product either deteriorates in quality (thus cannot be sold as premium grade) or worse, has to be discarded due to food safety concerns. This means food producers are losing valuable income and the country is deprived of quality nutrition.”

Power interruptions also have an impact on the safe handling and storage of perishable foods in the retail sector, says Kriel. “If the cold chain is disrupted, shelf life is affected and shop owners either have to remove affected products from their shelves, or face unhappy customers that return inedible products.”

To minimise the effect of load-shedding for retailers, owners must ensure that the energy required is optimised by employing an energy solutions provider, he says. “Lights, refrigeration, ovens and all other energy intensive elements must be as energy efficient as possible and energy usage must be monitored closely. Once this has been implemented, store owners can invest in standby generation and solar power, especially if they trade mostly during daylight hours.”

Kriel says that while it is capital intensive to install these solutions initially, it could make the business partly or sometimes even wholly independent of the national energy supplier, especially if the solution is combined with solar power.

“Many energy solutions providers, such as Energy Partners, also provide energy solutions to the food and beverage sector on an outsourced basis which require minimal capital investment.  These products and services allow clients to continue with business as usual in an energy efficient and cost effective way,” concludes Kriel.