Energy alternatives in Africa

When President Jacob Zuma appointed Elizabeth Dipuo Peters to the post of Energy Minister in 2009 one of the key performance areas he asked her to progress was getting greater private sector involvement in power generation. She very quickly perceived that some of the best opportunities to achieve this lay in the renewable energy sector, so as a passionate believer in sustainable energy policies, she targeted the exciting emerging technologies and the companies that could help South Africa’s achieve its ambitious target to dramatically cut its reliance and generate 42 percent clean energy by 2020 and cut carbon emissions by a similar figure by 2025. “I saw an opportunity to use renewable energy as an instrument to bring in the independent power producers,” she says.

By 2011, the year South Africa hosted the international Climate Change Conference COP17, her ministry announced its target to obtain 3,725 MW of renewable energy in two bid rounds, called Window 1 and Window 2. “In Window 1 we managed to get 28 preferred bidders, I am happy to say, all of whom qualified for government financial incentives, and these are the companies building the first 28 plants.” This, she says, will feed into the National Development Plan, South Africa’s blueprint for development over the next 20 years, which aims to create a low carbon economy by 2030.

A key factor in this strategy is the Integrated Resource Plan which sets out energy strategy from 2010 to 2030, which takes on board the 42 percent renewable power policy, she continues: “The biggest beneficiary of this 42 percent is photovoltaic (PV) solar and wind. Concentrated solar power (CSP) accounts for a smaller proportion, and of the 17,800 MW renewable we are committed to installing by 2030 most will come from wind and PV solar.”

The original 28 bids, approved in November last year, will contribute 1,400 MW. To these have now been added a further 19 projects under the Window 2. They were given the go ahead in May 2013 and will contribute a further 1,200 MW of capacity. The present state of play, then, is that 47 private operators are now developing projects right across the country, to Mrs Peters’ great satisfaction and funded by the government to the turn of R75 billion ($7.6 billion). To this, she points out, should be added the national power generation company Eskom’s own 200MW renewable energy project, 50 percent generated from wind energy resources and the other 50 percent from CSP.

Nearly half of current renewable power developments in the country in the country are located in the Northern Cape Province. Could that have something to do with the fact that Elizabeth Dipuo Peters is a former president of the province? She says it is more likely to be because this is the province with the highest direct normal irradiance (DNI), a measure of solar radiation. It is also home to the Northern Cape Solar Corridor, which includes proposed sites near Upington, Groblershoop, Prieska and De Aar.

Working with organisations such as the South African National Energy Association, the South African Independent Power Producers Association and the South African Wind Energy Association and SANEDI, the South African National Energy Development Institute, the Department of Energy is working flat out to promote renewable energy, she says. However this has to be done within the context of other national priorities, she adds. “We have built into our procurement processes the need for localisation. We want as many of the components as possible to be made here. That way the renewable programme will boost South Africa’s economic development and skills base.”

This is new and exciting technology, she points out, giving a unique opportunity to the country’s research and development community as well as growing employment. She is hopeful that a real partnership can develop between local and global manufacturers.

Another aspect of renewable power generation that excites her lies in its potential social impact. “ At World Environment Day In June this year South Africa was invited to become part of a renewable energy club made up of ten committed countries. The Secretary General of the UN has identified renewable energy as one of those instruments that can actually unlock access particularly in parts of the world suffering from energy poverty.” As the German Environmental Minister Peter Altmaier said at the launch: “Renewable energy is not only a good way of combating climate change, it also contributes to prosperity and supply security throughout the world.”

For South Africa this could mean bringing the potential for renewable microgeneration into the mix, enthuses Mrs Peters. “In a move towards decentralised generation we are looking at incentivising neighbourhood and community groups to use either wind or solar to generate their own power and create their own energy distribution networks. This is one space we are very excited about!” Local projects also contribute to the 42 percent target, she points out. Even a small component of society like a municipality landfill gas programme can use waste to generate power; waste vegetable matter from a school can go into a biodigester to generate gas that can be used to heat that school.

Even at a household level there is huge potential, even if they can’t generate power at the grid level. In 2009 Peters announced a programme to install a million water heaters in homes and commercial buildings, and so great has been the uptake that this number is sure to rise. She particularly likes the fact that this initiative directly improves the lives of women, relieving them of the need to go out and collect wood for heating water.

In more densely populated areas there is a different approach. For example in Gauteng Province, her ministry is working with the Department of Public Works as well as the Department of Infrastructure Development of Gauteng to retrofit the government buildings to renewable energy (normally solar panels). We believe that would also add to energy efficiency as well as introducing renewable energy. That is a double-barrelled type of project that is going to have dual benefits for us as a government and also as a country.”

Biomass is another way to produce green energy on a localised basis. Bagasse may be a new term to many people, but there’s a lot of it in southern Africa. It is the fibre that is left when sugar cane or guinea corn stalks have been crushed. Nearly a third by weight of sugar cane ends up as bagasse, and despite its high moisture content it is very effective when combined with other forms of biomass such as timber shavings to generate electricity. Mrs Peters is keen to work with the producers in South Africa who between them produce nearly 20 million tonnes of sugar cane, as well as the timber and sugar cane industries of neighbouring countries like Mozambique and Swaziland.

If all these initiatives are co-ordinated and taken seriously demand on the national power grid could be lightened significantly. Street lighting, traffic lights, perimeter lights and security lighting are all examples of medium- to low-load areas that could be brought into sustainable local generation schemes – at the same time, she believes that encouraging this way of thinking could create the necessary critical mass to sustain local production of components and stimulate new industries and yet more employment. “I have visited many factories in South Africa that are manufacturing key components. They are even producing solar inverters that change DC from the PV panels to AC for the network. The geyser industry is also growing, as well as solar panel assembly. Energy policy can be a catalyst for job creation: it has the potential to reduce poverty, especially energy poverty.”

As she mentioned before renewable energy is a job creator as well as an investment magnet. “We are told the number of jobs resulting from Windows 1 and 2 alone is around 13,000. In one small town in the Northern Cape one company now employs 500 people. For a small town that is massive. And it restores the dignity of those people.”

The stumbling block is the cost of the technology and she is determined to tackle that. Another spin out from COP17 was the South Africa Renewable Initiative (SARi), launched as an International Partnership by South Africa together with Denmark, Germany, Norway and the UK, and the European Investment Bank. SARi is a funding mechanism, she explains, that will help South Africa unlock its green growth potential through the funding of large-scale renewable developments. The goal is to help cut technology costs. “But we are also calling on the technology developers because they are mostly international players. If they believe in the future of renewable energy they should be prepared to do more than just drive returns on their own investment. If this technology grows more and becomes available, especially in developing countries, in the long run they will get enough returns; but in the beginning they will have to make it possible for us to create the market.”

The wind and sun, she says, come at no cost and are everyone’s birthright. It is in everyone’s interest to get the cost of converting these natural resources into usable energy.

www.energy.gov.za

Written by John O’Hanlon, research by James Boyle