High costs hamper SA's waste-to-power plans

Animal and human waste could produce as much as 200MW to help ease power problems in South Africa, but efforts to turn waste into power for small communities are being hurt by high equipment costs.

Africa has abundant renewable energy resources, yet much of the continent has no adequate power supply, especially in rural areas where investment in projects and infrastructure is poor.

While a seemingly cheaper method of generating electricity by burning animal and human waste to create biogas and then electricity is available, experts say hurdles remain.

“There is quite a bit of interest from small farmers but for them it’s not particularly viable at the moment because of the costs,” Rob Cloete, director of South African biogas firm Biogas Power, told Reuters.

He said costs of converting waste to power in South Africa were still excessive and far out of reach for the majority of people, particularly in rural areas where income is low despite an abundance of waste from farming.

“A number of small cattle and pig farmers, for example, are interested in converting animal waste into electricity either for their households or for their communities, but it always comes down to how expensive the equipment is,” he said.

Cloete said a small biodigester to convert biogas to electricity could cost up to R20 000, far out of reach of the majority of people in rural communities.

Several waste-to-power projects have been implemented in South Africa amid hopes animal waste could supplement grid power, but few of these have produced the results needed to spearhead the push for more investment in similar projects.

A piggery in the northern Limpopo has produced about 10MW since August by converting biogas to electricity.

A project in the KwaZulu-Natal province generates up to 3 000 kilowatt hours of electricity each month from chicken manure.

Independent producer Lesedi Biogas Project (LBP) said in August it planned to build one of the world’s largest open-air feedlot manure-to-power projects near Johannesburg, a R150-million project that could produce 3,8MW of baseload power and 6,2MW of peaking power per year.

“You’ll notice that those projects are a bit bigger than what the average rural community or individual farmers can handle. But they do show that it can be done,” Cloete said.

Waste-biogas projects around the country could ease the burden on a national grid that collapsed last year due to burgeoning demand.

Cloete said the average rural family could generate enough electricity to cook a meal and provide light for a few hours from 45kg of animal and human waste.

“You’re not suddenly going to have a whole household running ... but you could at least boil water and cook a meal,” he said.—Reuters

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