A future in alternative energy

Contributing to the grid: BioThem Energy's Klipheuwel-Dassiefontein Wind Energy Facility outside Caledon in the Western Cape. (Photo: Johann Barnard)

Contributing to the grid: BioThem Energy's Klipheuwel-Dassiefontein Wind Energy Facility outside Caledon in the Western Cape. (Photo: Johann Barnard)

All hail Elon Musk! The South African-born entrepreneur who has made a name by disrupting industries through PayPal, Space-X, Tesla electric vehicles and SolarCity has potentially nailed a wooden stake into our reliance on fossil fuel power generation.

A week ago he unveiled the Powerwall Home Battery, which may be a revolutionary step forward in enabling homes and businesses to overcome the most vexing piece of the renewable energy puzzle: energy storage.

He described the announcement of the battery system as “a fundamental transformation of how the world works”. Considering his track record in disrupting other industries it is damn hard not to believe him. 

There are detractors, though, and with some justification. The system is not exactly cheap, and the cost excludes other vital components such as the solar panels and inverters needed to make a home solar system work.

James Green, chairman of the Sustainable Energy Society of Southern Africa, says that as exciting as the announcement sounds, Tesla has essentially taken a product that does the same as many others in the market at roughly the same cost, and simpy placed it in a pretty box.

“I’ve done a comparison on the numbers, and it is extremely attractive, but not necessarily attractive enough,” says Green.

Be that as it may, the Tesla technology and approach may just be the catalyst the world needs to start considering the true potential of renewable energy sources for home and commercial use. South Africans, in particular, are crying out for alternatives to the sketchy power offered by Eskom.

The source of the problem lies in mismanagement and unabashed incompetence at the national power utility, which has eroded public confidence in its abilities to keep the lights on.

Green says that the solution to reducing this pressure is self-evident, but also prone to misguided implementation.

“The crazy thing about South Africa is that we have a unique set of circumstances: we have fantastic solar radiation but we have a consumer market that uses electricity for heating water,” he says. “In a country that uses coal for heating water, which could be replaced 100% by solar radiation, it seems crazy at a time that we are facing a power crisis, that we don’t have a single government incentive programme to save energy.”

The incentive scheme that supported the rollout of solar geysers expired at the end of April this year.

Green says the market penetration of solar geysers is a paltry 2%, amounting to around 100 000 units compared to 6 million electric geysers. He is engaging government at various levels to have this subsidy reinstated, with the goal of implementing one million solar geysers by 2021. This goal, he believes, can be achieved with the right government incentives.

He considers solar geysers as the low-hanging fruit in South Africa’s energy crisis, as between 14% to 18% of Eskom’s daily output is consumed in heating water. “The benefit of solar water heaters is that they can replace all, or at least part of that demand.”

At the other end of the scale, South Africa has implemented a renewable energy generation programme that has been acknowledged by all concerned as a huge success. Not only has the government’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Programme (REIPPP) reduced reliance on fossil fuel, it has also contributed to alleviating some pressure on Eskom.

Moeketsi Thobela, chief executive of the SA Photovoltaic Industry Association, says that solar and wind projects that came online in 2014 contributed 1 600MW of additional capacity to the grid.

He says the success of the programme can also be measured in the cost of renewable power declining through its four bidding stages.

“According to Eskom’s interim report to September 2014, its average cost of production is 64c/kWh. According to the CSIR, including the cost of Medupi and Kusile, the average cost is around 80c/kWh. As at the latest round of the REIPPP, the average PV (photovoltaic) prices have dropped to 79c/kWh, which represents a 76% point drop in prices since Round 1.”

BioTherm, one of the participants in the programme, is a demonstration of how producers have benefited. It was allocated projects amounting to 251MW in the fourth round, after initially winning approval for two PV solar and one wind project with a combined capacity of less than 50MW.

The company’s chief executive Jasandra Nyker says the announcement by Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson last month to expand the programme by another

1 800MW of renewable energy is good news, and has provided assurance to the industry that there is commitment to continue rolling out these projects.

“The solution for our energy crisis lies not in the size of the project, but how quickly projects can connect to the grid,” she says. “That is where the focus should be. Smaller or medium-sized projects can contribute quickly if their grid connection timelines are short and therefore assist in overcoming the current energy shortage.

“And this additional capacity is what we need to create in the short term. In the South African context, we can’t wait any longer. The sooner we get that capacity, the better off the economy will be. As it is, we are incurring an indirect penalty because of the impact the power shortages are having on economic activity.”

Industry sources are unanimous in their support of the REIPPP and the contribution it can make to addressing both the immediate power crisis and the country’s long-term reliance on fossil fuel.

Chief executive of the SA Wind Energy Association Johan van den Berg says the economic benefits of the REIPPP are huge. It has created a R130-billion industry in four years, with R11-billion committed to socioeconomic and enterprise development.

Pancho Ndebele, a board member of the SA Renewable Energy Council, says this is an invaluable contribution to the economy: “What is key is to ensure that those at the bottom of the economic [pyramid] become substantial beneficiaries of the programme, so that we can transform the economic landscape.”