South Africa has got to consider renewable energy, or risk being left behind. This was the message from a seminar held by Greenpeace Africa in Johannesburg on Wednesday morning.
The discussion, entitled “Shaping the South African energy dialogue: towards a sustainable energy future”, featured panellists Yves Marignac, international consultant on nuclear and energy issues; Jayendra Naidoo, energy spokesperson for Business Leadership South Africa; and Davin Chown, from Mainstream Renewable Power.
Nuclear: the panacea for all our energy ills?
Marignac, speaking from his knowledge and experience of the nuclear industry in France, cautioned South Africa about relying on nuclear power as a “silver bullet” as a solution for the country’s energy future.
While nuclear power provides 78% of France’s electricity, this is only a fraction of the country’s overall power consumption, of which half is from oil, and another 20% from gas. The primary motivation for the nuclear programme was to reduce France’s dependency on oil, but oil consumption levels are now back to what they were in the ’70s, said Marignac.
Part of the problem with nuclear is that is does not help to reduce emissions, and it locks in energy supply: meaning it prevents the development of new and more sustainable technologies.
“Nuclear has a long-term negative impact on the effectiveness of the transformation of energy, which is more significant than the short-term positives,” he said.
Another aspect is that radioactive waste from the nuclear plants has begun to pile up – “And there is no real solution,” said Marignac.
“Nuclear energy does not solve energy or climate problems; in fact it creates new, specific problems,” he added. “Nuclear makes it more difficult to implement new, proactive solutions, and in turn aids the spread of nuclear power and related problems.”
The way forward is a decentralised power supply, and renewable energy like solar and wind power — and developing countries must not waste this opportunity to use new, clever solutions to their energy problems, instead of copying the methods and mistakes of the West.
“Countries like South Africa should go directly to energy efficiency and renewables. Try to be a champion of renewable energy on the continent instead of trying to go for nuclear prestige which will only bring problems,” he told the audience.
Bringing business into the equation
Naidoo emphasised the need for human consumption behaviour to change. “What is sustainable?” he asked. “Is it sustainable to have 6-billion people on the planet, is it sustainable to travel to conferences, to go on holiday, to eat meat everyday?”
He listed three challenges we are currently facing: the need for more energy, the need to reduce per capita consumption of energy, and to achieve the transformation of equality of power generation and distribution.
“We were lucky there was a recession,” he said, “because there was a drop in demand [of energy].” But he cautioned that demand will rise faster than our ability to create facilities to generate more power.
Naidoo pointed out that South Africa is in a unique situation, and should therefore develop a unique solution. “Coal will still be a big part of the country’s energy future,” he said, as South Africa has vast coal resources. But it won’t be used in the same way as it’s being used now — cleaner ways to burn coal have been, and are being, developed.
“It will be the same power with fewer emissions.” Naidoo confidently predicted that one day we will all be driving electric cars. “This will address two problems — the storage of electricity, and reducing our oil consumption.”
He was cautious about relying too heavily on wind and solar energy, saying it is expensive and not reliable enough, and therefore requires a backup plan in the form of nuclear or coal. What is needed now is a switch to energy efficiency, which involves changes in behaviour by both the producer and consumer.
“We need incentives, rules, a change in consumer behaviour and an increase in social awareness,” he added.
The power of wind
Wind and solar power, according to Chown, represent “huge, growing opportunities”.
“These are no longer experimental technologies,” he said. “They’ve been tried and tested and used around the world. The question is, why isn’t South Africa implementing the technology in the same way?”
What is needed is a willingness to change and do things differently, he said. “We need clean energy for sustainable economic and social development,” he added. “South Africa has a once-off shot at this.”
Chown pointed out the inherent economic risk in relying on fossil fuels, not least the possibility of having to pay carbon fines. He also highlighted the need for vision, policy, strategy and implementation to be aligned, and warned that confusion about who’s really in charge could lead to missed opportunities.
“Can we afford to debate or is it time to move forward?” he asked. The benefits of wind power are enormous, he said, including lowering the demand and price for fossil fuels. While fossil fuels might appear cheaper than renewables, “We pay for it in different ways and different places,” he said.
Renewable energy will lessen the risk on the economy, and this in turn will lead to a higher GDP. Chown also dismissed Naidoo’s criticism of wind and solar power as intermittent, saying they were “variable”. According to studies carried out across the country, Chown reported that they’d found that the wind blows when it’s needed: from 7am to around 6pm.
“We can rely on it, and we can predict it with a fair degree of accuracy, which means we can manage it.”
Wind power could also provide income and aid job creation.
“Wind is the cheapest solution for the energy crisis,” said Chown. “It is the cheapest to deploy and the longest lasting. It is a significant driver of local economic development, rural development and poverty alleviation.”
“It is a local fuel source that will never run out.”
“We’ve got the resource, now we need to develop and use it,” he continued. “We are not being bold enough in our energy strategy.”
Instead of looking at all the obstacles and challenges, we should be considering the reasons why we can and should be developing renewable energy solutions. South Africa is in a position to lead the way, and needs to seize the opportunity, otherwise it could find itself falling behind and having to rely on Chinese imported technology.
“There is no denying that going green is what we need to do,” said Chown. “We need to embrace new ways of generating energy.”