/ 13 November 2008

Renewable energy gets a kick-start

The Private Member’s Bill on Feed-in Tariffs, unveiled two weeks ago, has ignited hope that South Africa might finally use its abundant wind and sun resources to power the nation.

Renewable energy sources in South Africa are critically needed to downgrade South Africa’s reliance on coal, but so far unsustainable electricity prices have not encouraged investment into the sector.

Even if the Bill is not approved in Parliament, it will put pressure on the Department of Minerals and Energy to finish their own laggard Feed-in Tariff Bill, Lance Greyling — supporter of the Bill and a member of Parliament — told the Mail & Guardian.

Greyling, from the Independent Democrats, was particularly proud of the non-political alignment of the Bill, which is sponsored by Ruth Rabinowitz of the Inkatha Freedom Party and has the support of the DA’s Gareth Morgan.

Greyling hopes the Bill has a chance of being approved, if not this year, then certainly next year.

It will be discussed in a week’s time and has apparently been given the thumbs up from the private member’s chair, Vytjie Mentor.

“We want to have a hearing on this Bill to get discussions going and to find out from energy providers what kind of fee would be realistic for them,” Greyling said.

The Bill aims to get a fixed tariff from Eskom for providers of renewabel energy and for them to feed energy into the grid for a fixed period of time. So far renewable energy investment has been stalling because private providers had no incentive to generate their own electricity to feed into the grid.

The Bill proposes that the national energy regulator (Nersa) sets a fixed tariff for three years that will be paid to the supplier feeding into the grid. The tariff could be revised through negotiation every year.

Renewable power produced by renewable energy producers should be paid at a rate of up to five times the agreed regulatory tariff for a fixed period of between 15 and 25 years, the Bill states.

At the launch of the Bill chief executive of Terra Power Solutions Howard Ramsden said the cost of establishing a solar power station or wind turbine farm was about R17-million a megawatt. It would need to sell its power at a minimum of 80c a kilowatt to break even. Eskom sells power to consumers at 36c a kilowatt.

Nersa had apparently been working on a Feed-in Tariff Bill for a while, drawing up guidelines, before the department claimed the Bill as its terrain. But since then nothing has happened.

Greyling, Rabinowitz and Morgan formed a renewable energy lobby group called e-Parliament renewable energy activists (eREACT), through which they are pushing for renewable energy legislation. The Private Member’s Bill is their first action.

“Our introduction of this Bill will hopefully be a wake-up call to ministers who should be driving the renewables programme, to which they have largely paid lip service,” Rabinowitz said.

She said Finance Minister Trevor Manuel had stated that he is not convinced of the economic case for large-scale renewable energy projects in South Africa. “The focus remains on nuclear and coal-fired power stations.

“Yet there is convincing evidence that we have the world’s best site for generating a solar thermal power plant right here in the Northern Cape,” Rabinowitz said.

“Solar heating should be routine and solar photovoltaic should be incentivised, with many other forms of alternative energy.”

Greyling believes that Germany — which is a world leader in renewable energy — moved in the right direction with its Feed-in Tariff Bill, unlike the UK which merely used renewable targets.

“If we can get a decent policy in South Africa on feed-in tariffs, we can follow the Germans,” he said, adding that renewable energy had the potential for huge job creation.