/ 28 March 2017

​Energy fix stares SA in the face

Eskom is saddled with dirty power plants that cannot compete on price with renewable energy.
Eskom is saddled with dirty power plants that cannot compete on price with renewable energy.


More than 170-gigawatts of renewable energy was built globally last year. That’s as much as the whole world had a decade ago. It’s four times South Africa’s entire grid, where renewable capacity has gone from the five-megawatt Darling wind farm to 2 900MW from 54 plants in half a decade.

Rapid global growth has forced some countries to solve many of the problems that come with connecting a different type of energy to the grid. Coal and nuclear plants are generally stable. Wind and solar plants are less predictable. But countries such as Denmark, where 50% of electricity comes from renewables, and Germany, where the number is half that, have worked out how to make this work.

It seems policymakers and utilities in South Africa do not know about these solutions. Eskom is still bemoaning the problems of connecting far-flung renewable plants to the grid. Pro-nuclear lobbyists say the technology is not stable enough to supply a country.

In most cases, these arguments are driven by self-interest. Eskom has a fleet of power stations that cannot compete with new renewables on cost, and the nuclear industry sees profit to be made in a trillion-rand build — which means the cheapest solutions are not being embraced.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research calculates that wind and solar plants, supported by open-cycle turbines, could power 70% of the grid by 2040. This would save R87-billion a year when compared to a mix with coal and nuclear.

Cognisant of issues like this, the International Energy Agency has released a manual for utilities and policymakers to use when planning what energy to plug into their national grids. Getting Wind and Sun onto the Grid: A Manual for Policy Makers marks an evolution for an organisation that was set up to support the growth of fossil fuels in the 1970s.

It is as technical as it sounds but it tackles the “myths” that prevent renewable energy being rolled out as quickly as it could be. It starts by saying: “Despite this evidence [of rapid growth in renewables], discussion on renewable integration is often still marred by misconceptions, myths and in cases even misinformation.”

The manual shows up key problems in South Africa’s energy policy and structure. One of these is a lack of a smart grid, where energy can be dispatched and used according to needs. Attempts to wrestle ownership of the grid away from Eskom to create such a grid were defeated when the Independent System and Market Operator Bill fell off Cabinet’s to-do list.

In Spain, such a grid involves a central control centre monitoring data from renewable plants around the country. It knows when less electricity is forthcoming, so peaking plants (run by gas) can be turned on. It can also throttle renewables when they are producing excess power that isn’t needed.

But South Africa’s main problem is local energy regulation and planning. Its grand energy plan, the Integrated Resource Plan 2010, is meant to be updated every two years. When it was first promulgated, solar plants sold electricity at R3.65 a kilowatt-hour and wind plants sold it at R1.52/kWh. Both those numbers have dropped to just over 60c/kWh.

An attempt to update the plan to reflect the changing energy reality in 2013 was similarly dropped off Cabinet’s to-do list. Extensive reporting in the Mail & Guardian at the time linked this to the update’s suggestion that nuclear was not important and did not make economic sense. That rankled an administration that wants to build 9 600MW of nuclear, at a cost of about R1-trillion.

The latest update, still under discussion, presents three scenarios, with the main one similarly saying that nuclear is not important and, if built, would need to break ground only in the 2030s. A mix of sources, with wind and solar playing a primary role, are instead preferred.

But the outdated seven-year-old energy plan is still in use and that means the lessons learnt by other countries are not being implemented here.

The International Energy Agency’s manual is clear on this: “The majority of security of supply concerns with renewables in recent years have resulted from a failure to anticipate them in the grid code [design] and have subsequently been solved by amendments to it.”

Other countries have made the mistakes and learnt from them. South Africa doesn’t need to make the mistakes.