Renewable energy: Friend or foe?

The new minister of energy, Jeff Radebe, says that outstanding power-producers’ agreements (PPAs) with independent power producers (IPPs) will be signed on 13 March 2018. But while the renewable energy industry celebrates the minister’s promise, the voices of those opposed to this technology are growing louder, and in some cases more aggressive.

Roger Lilley

The PPAs the minister refers to relate to 27 projects which were awarded to a number of IPPs in rounds 3.5 and 4 of the government’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme (REIPPPP). This plan was established by the Department of Energy in 2011 as part of the government’s National Development Plan to provide an additional 10 000 MW of electricity to support economic growth and to ensure that every South African would have access to electricity by 2025.

However, during the last few years, the country’s economy has contracted significantly, resulting in a  lower demand for electricity. At the same time, electricity tariffs have quadrupled, encouraging the use of more energy-efficient equipment and lighting solutions. This was partly Eskom’s doing with its “Live lightly” campaign which, among other things, ran a campaign replacing incandescent light bulbs with more energy-efficient compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs).

During this time, residents experienced lengthy power outages, which were caused, Eskom said, by power generation units being taken out of service for essential maintenance which was necessary to prevent the power system from collapsing which, in turn, would result in a complete country-wide black out. These power outages were usually advertised ahead of time and many businesses, and not a few individuals, purchased diesel or petrol fueled generators for use during these outages.

This so-called “loadshedding” resulted in a reduction in demand which gave Eskom the opportunity to catch up with its overdue maintenance programme. It also resulted in businesses and individuals realising that they need no longer be at Eskom’s or their municipality’s mercy regarding the supply of electricity.

More and more rooftop photovoltaic (PV) systems were installed as people started to seriously consider supplementing their energy needs with grid-tied solar PV systems, or even going “off-grid”. During this period, Eskom found itself with a growing surplus of generation capacity (i.e. the power utility has the capacity to generate more electricity than it can sell).

One obvious solution is for Eskom to close five old coal-fired power stations which do not comply with current emissions standards, are inefficient, and are not fed from a reliable and low cost source of coal. Although the utility undertook to close these stations, they are still operating. They emit harmful gases into the atmosphere which people living near these power stations have to breathe in every day. The coal to fire the boilers has to be delivered by huge trucks at great cost, as well as causing serious damage to the roads which is extremely expensive to repair. Furthermore, it is believed that some of these coal trucks have been the cause of some deadly road accidents.

The minister’s promise to sign the outstanding PPAs has been met with a barrage of anti-renewable energy comment and opinion in the media. Despite the fact that most first-world countries have adopted renewable energy into their generating mix, a group South Africans seem determined to air their view that solar and wind power is unsuitable for this country.

Although I’m too young to have experienced it personally, I can imagine that today’s rhetoric around the introduction of renewable energy must be similar to that which surrounded the dawn of the “horseless carriage” and the introduction of electric light.

That’s not to say that renewable energy is without its challenges. But those challenges will be overcome. A reading of the history of the last 250 years will show how scientific advances have overcome seemingly impossible hurdles.

Some people say the cost of electricity from renewable energy sources is higher than from existing coal-fired and nuclear power stations. But that is backward looking. Going forward the cost of electricity from new nuclear and new coal stations like Medupi and Kusile, must be compared with the cost of electricity from new renewable energy power, gas an energy storage plants still to be built.

The cost of all externalities must be  considered, including the negative long-term effects from CO2 emissions, water and air pollution, long-term high-level nuclear waste storage, and nuclear plant decommissioning. When cars were first introduced, petrol cost more than horse-feed. But cars took over from horse-drawn carts and carriages because of other factors which were considered to be of greater importance.

Serious in-depth studies into the practicality – from both technical and financial points of view – of the use of utility-scale renewable energy have been undertaken by reputable organisations. These studies show that renewable energy is a vital part of the energy mix in both first- and third-world countries.

One wonders why those opposed to renewable energy are so determined. What is really behind their clamour? Some seem concerned about the form Eskom may take in the future. Others appear to think that renewable energy will destroy rather than support the local economy. Like it or not, renewable energy is here, and it’s here to stay.

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