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Exemplar REITail: accelerating sustainability for township and rural retail in South Africa

Olievenhout Plaza, Olievenhoutbosch.

In late 2017, rural retail experts, McCormick Property Development (MPD) embarked on their pilot solar PV rollout program at Olievenhout Plaza in Olievenhoutbosch, Gauteng.

Fast forward five years and MPD has since listed its property portfolio and management business on the JSE as Exemplar REITail, investing over R100 million in 15 rooftop solar projects across its portfolio.

Exemplar boasts a portfolio of 23 assets across 5 provinces and it is the only South African property fund to focus purely on rural and township retail in previously underserviced areas in the country.

Our solar rollout is but one aspect of Exemplar’s sustainability drive”, comments CEO, Jason McCormick. “While solar makes financial sense, it fits well within our company’s overall ethos which has always been conservation-orientated and trying to do good outside of the business that we do. Our solar program is the next rung in the ladder of how we are hoping to build a better South Africa.

Exemplar’s plans to implement solar began over a decade ago but other than using a power conversion system (PCS), grid scale, it was almost impossible to approach funders or commercial banks at the time.

South Africa has witnessed large growth in solar energy over the past ten years. In September 2017, we piloted our solar program at Olievenhout Plaza using an Engineering, Procurement, and Construction (EPC) company and taking out a second bond on the property. Back then, funders and commercial banks did not understand the financing models of how rooftop solar really worked”.

Spearheading the program, Head of Sustainability, Wimpie van Rooy joined Exemplar in early 2020 to assist with accelerating the rollout.  

With his help, Exemplar has re-engineered its solar capabilities to become more efficient without modifying the fundamentals and allowing the team to explore different models including electrical storage systems for peak clipping and load shifting initiatives. This was first piloted at one of Exemplar’s flagship centres in 2021 with a second imminent roll out planned to be commissioned in August 2022.

This method has been earmarked for one of Exemplar’s new builds in an area that does not have sufficient grid power to accommodate a shopping centre. With a Tri-Generation System (TGS), Wimpie’s team will use a combination of Eskom’s power, grid-tie solar PV, electrical energy storage systems, and diesel generation to kickstart the development.

Exemplar has also brought its solar rollout program in-house, sourcing the high-cost equipment directly from manufacturers.

By bringing the majority of the work in-house, we have been able to significantly reduce our specific capital cost, without compromising quality. We are focusing on rooftop solar, primarily because it is currently more profitable than carport or other ground mounted systems,” says Wimpie.

The energy space in South Africa is really opening up with various green initiatives and different avenues that one can take – it all depends on what you want out of it: do you want to move away from load shedding, or do you want to see the financial benefits of generating your own low-cost energy?”, he asks.

By tapping into its existing infrastructure, Exemplar remains focused on its ‘own use’ rooftop installations with solar front-and-centre for every new development.

The retail science must work in the initial layout and design of every development, and we are doing our best to ensure that our solar rollout is as efficient as possible. From a commercial perspective, the solar program is more feasible than doing a new development in terms of the returns we can generate from solar, relative to a greenfield retail development”, says Jason.

Initially, it was a slow move to raise funding, which we did internally, but everything has moved so rapidly over the past two years. We currently have 13,3 MWDC installed at the various shopping centres and have another 8,6 MWDC planned for the next 12 months.”

“Exemplar plans to expand its focus on water saving initiatives next,” concludes Jason, “our sustainability journey promises to be an Exemplary one”.