Green Energy in South Africa

The only answer can be a mix as all, without exception, constitute a compromise in one way or another. Wind farms are criticized by some on aesthetic grounds and can be harmful to bird and bat populations if sited incorrectly. Photovoltaic power plants only produce power during the day and have no storage capacity. Concentrated solar thermal power plants do have storage capabilities, but certain configurations may be harmful to birds and the plants, usually sited in arid areas, are reliant on large quantities of water to produce the super-heated steam which drives the turbines to produce power. Bioenergy, if not produced from waste, has the potential to compete with other land uses such as food production. The options for large scale hydro are limited in South Africa and dam-building has negative effects on communities and ecosystems. Geothermal which is being developed in much of the East African rift valley region, is not an option in South Africa. However, all these renewable energy technologies together can contribute to a cleaner, safer and more secure future.

End-user renewables, where the commercial and domestic end user effectively becomes a mini power station in their own right, either by heating water and storing it, or through solar electric generation on their rooftops, has an important role to play. A major benefit is that the end-user stands to benefit directly from these technologies in terms of cost and security of supply.

Eskom's Lethaba coal-fired power station

Eskom generates approximately 95% of South Africa’s power. This represents around 80% of the total power across the SADC region. With a theoretical generation capacity of 42 GW, Eskom’s peak available capacity has been falling annually since 2009, largely due to aging infrastructure.

Currently, the peak capacity available is approximately 35.5 GW, and the power system is extremely tight with very limited reserves to fall back on. Renewable energy generation is becoming increasingly important in the overall energy mix, contributing towards energy sustainability and security. However the contribution from renewables is still small constituting less than 1 GW. Much of this power is added during daylight hours, and outside the morning and evening peak periods.

The issue of which renewable energy is more cost effective, has least impact on the environment and which provides the best overall solution is very often contested whenever renewable energy is the subject of discussion. When political and economic factors come into play, the potential for controversy is amplified. Concerns about climate change, climate scepticism, controversy theories and greenwashing add significant complexity to the debate.

From the perspective of SESSA, any removal of fossil-fuel generated power must be good, if only from a carbon perspective, as the evidence is now incontrovertible that the use of fossil fuels is the largest contributor to human induced climate change. In addition to this, building big power-generating infrastructure and transporting power over long distances through an inefficient grid is also inefficient. Energy efficiency is most effective if measures are undertaken where the power is being consumed, that is, by the end users themselves. Measures include rooftop solar thermal, rooftop solar electric, energy efficiency through energy efficient appliances and principles of passive design.

Map of REIPPP Projects

The globally acclaimed REIPPP Programme undertaken by the Department of Energy, will see 3.9 GW of power generated from wind, solar, small-hydro and bioenergy in its first three phases. Such a contribution to the national grid is approximately the equivalent of one of Eskom’s larger coal fired power stations, although less than both of the big coal fired plants, Medupi and Kusile, which are currently under construction and will have a capacity of  4.8 GW.

Privately generated green power is a major step towards a cleaner and more secure energy future in South Africa, but is still a long way from removing our reliance on coal. Ambitious targets such as those set in Germany to be 100% renewable by 2050, require even more commitment to renewables from South Africa. Although the price paid for clean energy was comparatively expensive in the initial phases of the programme, the enthusiasm for green energy has combined with increased volumes and greater efficiency and has driven prices progressively downwards. Depending on which technology sector is spoken to, grid parity - the price at which one can deploy renewable energy technology at the same rate or cheaper than the current cost - is not far off and in some technologies has already been achieved.