The largest renewable source of energy being used in South Africa is one that has been used for millennia – wood. More than 10% of households use this as their primary source of energy supply, with 80% of these relying on firewood and charcoal to cook and warm their houses.
A fifth of urban households and half of rural households are still not connected to the grid. This equates to over three-million households. The two million in rural areas are especially problematic because they are far from the main grid so connecting them is very expensive.
The white paper on renewable energy identified biomass as an important source of renewable energy. It would rank alongside the more sophisticated sources like wind, solar and hydro in supplying a third of all energy by 2030. This is also the target set by the department of energy.
But the problem is that biomass is currently collected in an unsustainable manner – mostly from people chopping down whatever trees at nearest for firewood.
Several reports have investigated the pros and cons of biomass as a source of energy.
One of these, written for the non-profit Trade and Industry Policy Studies in 2008, said South Africa should become a world leader in renewable energy technologies. Together all the renewable options could supply half of the country’s energy needs by 2050.
It did however warn, "Biomass is a renewable resource only if production is sustainable." If crops were planted specifically for bioenergy, which includes conversion to biofuels, the impact on food and water security would have to be monitored. But the sector had the potential to be a big driver of jobs, given how labour intensive agriculture is.
Two large-scale biomass plants have already tried to make a profit out of biomass energy. The Howick wood pellet plant in KwaZulu-Natal produced 60 000 tonnes of fuel a year, which it exported to Europe because there is no local market. A by-product of this was also a five megawatt biomass energy plant, but Eskom would not sign a power purchase agreement to take its power onto the grid. The plant closed this year.
A similar plant in Tsitsikamma added a six megawatt power plant to a sawmill, which supplied local communities with electricity. Again, Eskom did not connect the power to their grid and the project collapsed.
These examples should however not harm the future possibilities of biomass energy, said a report by the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development. "Given the fact that many South Africans will depend on biomass energy for the foreseeable future, improving their energy system is surely a priority irrespective of broader concerns over industrial energy expansion," it said.
The potential is there, with 42-million hectares of natural woodland that are currently not being used by Eskom for electricity production.
"A major advantage of biomass energy production is the high employment intensity of the industry," it said. Its widespread availability, especially in rural areas, meant that households without energy access now could easily be connected.