Shedding light on a renewable future

 By Nicholas Newman

In South African cities, urban dwellers face regular power cuts. This is despite the country being rich in coal resources for its power stations. Demand for electricity exceeds supply and the much delayed mega coal power stations of Medupi and Kusile, when they come online, should cover electricity needs until 2020. Forecasts of South Africa’s rising population, increased living standards and industrialisation, together with the closure of 6 to 10 GW of life- expired coal plants, indicate a power gap of between 10 to 15 GW by 2025 in the country. One thing, South Africa is not short of is wind and sun and has ambitious plans to construct over 13 GW of renewable power by 2025, with wind located along its Southern Coasts and solar in its Karoo Desert. Therefore, renewables may help to keep the lights on and increase access to electricity in the coming decade. South Africa’s 2010/2011 public-private procurement programme for renewable energy is amongst the fastest- growing energy programmes in the world and represents one of Africa’s largest infrastructure investments which is already providing energy, jobs, technology, foreign direct investment, rural development, community benefits and a working relationship between government and business…

In South African cities, urban dwellers face regular power cuts. This means people living in places like Johannesburg’s suburb of Soweto, often have no light for their children to study, but those living in a rich suburbs like Westcliffe have standby diesel generators to keep their televisions on. In rural areas, distant from the main power networks, lacking power means a life by candle light, with no electricity for mobile phone services, sewing machines or even water pumps.

Power cuts

Power cuts are a regular occurrence for the citizens of South African due to a combination of poor decision-making, insufficient investment in generation and grid capacity, and poor maintenance. Power shortages are reducing potential output from factories, mines and offices. When demand is forecast to exceed supply, Eskom, the state power company that produces most of the county’s power, has to schedule power cuts, known as “load shedding.” Indeed, load-shedding events have become so commonplace that they are reported alongside the weather forecast. For example, in October the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s, radio station in Cape Town reported, “There is a medium-to-high possibility of load shedding in Bellevue, over the next two days.” Scheduled power cuts can often last two or three hours and newspapers offer survival tips, such as load shedding recipes for food you can prepare without electricity and print silly jokes, such as, “What did we do before we had candles? Answer: electricity!”

Why coal is failing?

Power shortages, are common in developing countries, but you don’t expect this in an emerging economy like South Africa, which is rich in coal resources and has had electricity for over 100 years. It may not have been like this, but for the incessant delays in the completion of the mega coal power stations, Medupi and Kusile. With a total capacity of 9,600MW, these stations are located near South Africa’s industrial heartland, Johannesburg. In August, 800 MW of Medupi’s 4800MW potential came on line with the remaining production promised to come on stream by 2019. As for Kusile, no date for its full completion has been announced. Nevertheless, even when both plants are working at full capacity, South Africa is likely to face a major power shortage of between 10 to 15 GW by 2025, due to the planned closure of between 6 to 10 GW of mostly coal-based generating capacity that is coming to the end of its operating lifespan.

Renewables will help towards keeping the lights on

Unlike coal power, which needs good access to coal and water, solar and wind are plentiful. With over 2,500 hours of sunshine a year and wind on its southern coasts, South Africa has one of the world’s fastest growing renewable energy programs. Under its flagship public-private partnership, the country will provide 13,225 MW (13.2GW) of renewable power by 2025, delivered under power purchase agreements to Eskom.

Eskom reports that as of mid 2015, 42 projects with a combined capacity of 2,142 MW, have been connected to the grid, with significant savings in fuel costs, a reduction of blackouts and over 25,000 new jobs. According to South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the rapid expansion in renewable energy has cut an equivalent of 4.4 million metric tons (4.8 million short tons) of CO2.

In the four years since the program began, some $14 billion has been invested, of which 28 percent has come from foreign investors. Renewable energy projects are providing nearly half the planned generating capacity of the still unfinished Medupi coal plant. South Africa’s renewable program is one of Africa’s largest infrastructure investments, which is already providing significant additional energy, new manufacturing and service jobs, technical training and educational research opportunities.

Rural development and community benefits are substantial, since between 2.5 and 10 percent of each solar and wind project’s equity is owned by the community living within a 50-km (31-mi) radius of the plant, and a percentage of the turnover is mandated to be spent on social and economic development. According to the Department of Energy, communities that host renewable projects are expected to receive a net income of R29.1 billion ($21 billion) over 20 years or R1.46 billion ($1.1 billion) a year.

For villagers living near commercial solar and wind farms there are numerous benefits, since a percentage of the equity and profits of such ventures are owned by newly created community trusts for the benefit of the local inhabitants

City Dwellers Benefiting

Education and training are being enhanced by the renewables program. Academic research has been boosted with the establishment of a center for renewable and sustainable energy at Stellenbosch University. A joint government and private sector initiative in the recently established South African Renewable Energy Technology center at Cape Peninsula University are providing technical skills training to service the new industry.

In Africa, South Africa alone has domestic tower and blade manufacturers such as Kestrel Renewable Energy and African Wind Power working independently, or as partners, for major world manufacturers. Last year, Spain’s GRI Renewable Industries wind turbine tower manufacturing plant opened in Cape Town. In addition, the city houses solar panel factories for companies such as US-based solar giant SunPower. Local service companies have also sprung up.

Companies like Blue Sun Energy and Econet, are bringing combined solar PV with battery back-up to customer’s rooftops. One Cape Town customer, Christian Smit, says, “it’s cutting my power bills and reducing my reliance on unreliable Eskom. The only trouble is, unlike in Europe, there is no way to sell the surplus power to the grid. I have to store it in batteries.” This is supported by another city customer who, commenting on an article in Business Report writes, “I have about 8 Kw per hour spare solar to feed back but with huge cost of the grid tie system and small payment per Kw, it’s not worth connecting to the grid.” A higher feed-in tariff and lower connection charge could benefit Eskom in the long run. Furthermore, an interconnected grid offers Eskom the prospect of shifting excess power from a city such as Durban, when it is bathed in sunlight, to a cloudy Cape Town needing additional power.

Rural communities benefit

As for the rural population, wind turbines and solar panels are providing off-grid power for drawing water, providing heat and light, and charging of mobile phones. Already Telkom, the state-owned telecommunications service provider, has installed South African-made African Wind Power’s 3.6-12 V turbines on 21-km (13.6-m) high towers in the Drakensburg Mountain area to find out whether wind powered remote radio-based telephone hubs will be safe from the vandalism and theft afflicting solar powered hubs.

For villagers living near commercial solar and wind farms there are numerous benefits, since a percentage of the equity and profits of such ventures are owned by newly created community trusts for the benefit of the local inhabitants. A case in point is that of South Africa’s largest wind farm, the 38.6MW Cookhouse Wind Farm, of which the Cookhouse Wind Farm Community Trust owns 10 percent.

During its construction period, the project has already supported local charity organizations including soup kitchens, special day care centers for children with disabilities, old people’s and foster care homes and sporting facilities. Cookhouse Wind Farm management, supported by the shareholders and the developer Clean Energy Developments (ACED), has ensured that locals will benefit from the project’s dividends throughout its life of 20 years. Moreover, the developers are training 15 local people to manage the facility. Such new renewable power projects are selling power to Eskom at 5 US cents a kWh, roughly half the cost of new coal power. “I’d really like to hear what all those renewable critics, who say wind and solar are too expensive, have to say now,” says Killian Tomson, student at the University of Cape Town.

Amakhala Emoyeni Wind Farm near Bedford is located in a lightly populated farming area. Five percent of the project’s equity is shared between the Cookhouse Community Trust and Bedford Community Trust. The 450,000 MWhr of electricity output will be sold to Eskom under a 20-year power purchase agreement. Currently under construction, around 200 mainly unskilled temporary jobs have been created. During its operational phase of 25-30 years, 90 permanent semi-skilled workers will be employed according to its social impact assessment statement.

Local hotels, B&Bs and guest farms are providing accommodation to this influx of workers. Landowners were directly compensated for loss of land and local farmers say the wind farm will allow them to continue farming. Also deserving a mention is Jasper Solar farm, which according to its own website, claims that it powers 80,000 homes and generated about one million man-hours of work during the preparation of the site and installation of its 325,360 solar panels.

In the longer term, access to off-grid renewable energy, offers an end to the use of wood for cooking with a reduction in health complications arising from smoke-filled air in dwellings. Electricity from a single turbine can remove the daily drudge of collecting wood for fire. It can increase villagers’ incomes from craftwork. For instance, in one village a seamstress was able to make clothes six times faster. Wind and solar energy also enables villagers to use electric powered pumps to irrigate their fields and to provide fresh water. Large-scale renewable energy projects offer rural populations many financial, economic and social benefits, but most of all, renewable energy changes their environment of intermittent darkness to light.

MUST READ: Darkness at Noon by Rob Davies

Africa power cuts
about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.