Load shedding is a term that’s not very common in well developed countries, but a trip to South Africa gives you different perspectives about life. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, let me shed some light on it, pun intended. Unlike a complete blackout, load shedding is a scheduled event, and there’s even an app – Eskom – to anticipate when it will happen in your area. There are some events when load shedding is random and I experienced that during my trip in Johannesburg.

Of course, the overall impact of load shedding is significant, affecting businesses and education. Workplaces, like the BMW IT Hub, rely heavily on generators to keep the lights on of their operations and serve global clients. But it’s really the schools and who are affected the most, particularly in less affluent neighborhoods lacking backup systems. Therefore, BMW is exploring new ideas to mitigate load shedding, especially through second-life battery applications.

Enter PowerUp

Poorer areas like townships near Pretoria are heavily affected and BMW started their pilot project with a local school: Ntsha Peu Primary School in Shoshanguve. One would think that such projects start from the top down, but in fact, they are grassroots effort started by passionate BMW employees. Two of them were my hosts at the school – Sabrina Kolbeck and Jacob Hamar. The Munich-based star employees worked their way up through approval levels until they received the necessary funding and approval for the project.

Between 2019 and 2021, BMW Group South Africa completed a refurbishment worth nearly 200,000 euros of the Ntsha Peu Primary School. The investment brought a new IT lab (hosting 80 students), an improved library, sports facilities and new furniture. Then in 2022, Sabrina and Jacob began their own journey. BMW collaborated with the school to install 165 solar panels generating up to 32kW of electricity, reducing the school’s energy costs. The system is enough to run nearly 40 computers, power 100 light bulbs and a water pump.

Second-Life Applications for Battery Packs

Furthermore, Jacob brought his in-house BMW expertise (he works in the battery development department) to give batteries a second life. His team designed an energy storage system consisting of six battery packs from X3 plug-in hybrid vehicles. The 42kWh battery storage was installed in early 2023 and based on their existing capacity, they can last up to 20 years. According to Jacob, second life batteries, even with a 70% state of charge (SOC) can still be used for 7-10 years.

The backup electric system offers a seamless transition during load shedding events, ensuring minimal interruptions in learning. At the same time, this proof of concept also demonstrates the long lifespan of batteries, dispelling the misconception that they rapidly become landfill waste. According to the BMW engineer, setting up a new school would only take 6 to 12 months from the inception of the project. The actually battery storage installation can be done in a matter of weeks.

Building on the achievements of this initiative, BMW is actively considering the expansion of similar projects in various schools. This expansion will involve a combination of financial investments and the transfer of this type of technology and expertise from Munich.