Peak Oil Perspectives
Peak Oil Perspectives

Eskom and the ANC will leave us in the dark

By Roger Diamond

The last decade of inaction, dithering and incompetence on the part of those deciding South Africa’s energy future is going to leave us in the dark — literally and figuratively. Renewable energy generation should already be in operation with massive programmes on research and further installations under way. Yet we sit with almost complete dependence on finite fossil fuels, for energy and no sign of any significant investment in renewables.

Many people like to point out the inadequacies of renewables, but these are only further reasons to be investing in them. True, we cannot power our society completely off renewable power given current usage and renewable technologies. However this is exactly the reason we should have as much renewable power as possible. Remaining fossil fuels need to be saved to fill that gap. Using fossil fuel energy when we could be sourcing that energy from renewables is foolish. We need to be saving our fossil fuels, oil in particular, for making fertilisers, plastics and other chemicals — or for powering aircraft. Using coal to heat up water in our homes or oil to keep cars idling in traffic will be seen as criminal in coming decades.

Some people argue that we should wait until renewable technologies improve before investing but it is only through the actual deployment of current technology that we can pay for research and development (R&D) and promote further R&D to make the systems more efficient. Cars would not be getting 20km per litre if we didn’t have 100 years of experience building them. Real progress in wind turbine efficiency has only taken flight in the last decade or so. In the period since the first turbine, early attempts at wind power in the 1970s oil crisis era and the more recent boom in the late 1990s, very little progress was made because nobody was doing much.

South Africa should not be sitting back hoping that one day renewables will be so cheap that we’ll be able to replace our coal power stations in a flash. We need to be building skills in manufacturing, installation and government regulation so that we can gradually move away from the dirty and dwindling coal supplies. Just as our rainbow nation is made stronger and wiser by the variety of people who live in it — so our energy supplies can only be more robust and secure by having a diversified and ever-greening generation base. I sometimes wonder if the ANC is mistakenly applying affirmative action to energy resources, wanting them to be as black as possible — coal and oil.

Nuclear energy is also a finite resource, with uranium being an extremely rare element. The costs associated with doing it right are huge — that is without decommissioning or high level waste disposal — as no one in the world has done either. Doing nuclear wrong leads to Japan’s Fukushima or Ukraine’s Chernobyl.

If there is to be any light in the future, we need renewable energy generation now. Our government and single sluggish power utility are failing us with a severe lack of foresight.

  • Melusi

    I hate to engage with ignorant bloggers. How can we switch to Hrydro power while South Africa is a semi-desert country? The national power grid demand/supply is approximately 40 gigawatts and because of our few harnesable rivers we can only generate less than 100 megawatts. That’s 2,5% of the current grid. To reach the 40 gigawatt and exceed it by 8 folds we will have to unify the SADC region into one state and harness energy from the rivers of Congo, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, etc.

    On solar panels; they can only be succesfully harnesed in one province in the country and that’s Northern Cape. Others will defer with me on this saying but what about other province because they also see the sun. Answer to that is simple engineering economics: you want maximum power in a less favourable season which is winter. Only Northern Cape caters for that.

    The blogger is assuming there are no research programmes on renewable energy simply because ANC is governing, my question is is it a joke what tertiary institutions are doing everyday? Is it a joke what pumped scheme programmes of Eskom implemented at their Palmiet plant in cape town? Is it a joke what Lesotho highlands project did? Is it a joke what post 2008 solar powered RDP houseing project did?

    Whether we like it or not, we are stuck with coal, oil and nuclear. They are dirty resources but very efficient. Solution to a world energy uncertainty is the

  • Oldfox

    Agree 100%.
    Another advantage of renewables relative to nuclear is less reliance on costly overseas labour. French engineers maintain the reactors at Koeberg.

    South Africa can export renewable technology developed here. We cannot export nuclear technology unless it was developed here.

  • benzo

    To start with your last comment, I agree that nuclear energy is not a good solution for the amount of energy needed in the world today. Just the waste from nuclear plants, dumped on remote places (Vaalput – Northern Cape) should make us think. Would anybody volunteer to have such a dump in his/her back yard? Think why you would answer “NO”. Why then should we continue to dump it in a reomote place?

    Back to renewable energy. Many already argue that renewable energy is not cost effective (net return on investment) or energy effective (net energy gain)in their enthousiasm for nuclear.

    What did people do when electricity and oil were not available commodities? In Europe? Wind mills were build and used for industrial activities. Holland had grinding mills, sawing mills, water moving mills (keeping the low lying polders dry). Maybe some lessons could be learned from wat they did then and what we now now?

    Solar was not a popular option at the time. However, in today’s Germany ordinary people install solar panels and feed oversupply back into the grid and get paid for that. Imagine all households in SA, equipped with solar panels, feeding oversupply back into the grid and getting paid?

    Maybe we must establish a “crazy think tank” with some nutters to explore out of the box ideas under a “nothing is impossible until we tried” mandate.
    Government and Eskom to be excluded from participation and testing of the ideas for proven lack of creativity.

  • Peter Joffe

    Who is to blame for all this? The arms deal of course as badly needed money was diverted from buying and upgrading much needed power resources to buy arms that we did not need, but then we all know whose banks accounts swelled beyond recognition from these practices. We don’t need any education and research based solutions? What we need are some good ‘political’ solutions as there is no money to fix what is broken. ‘EISH it’s broken’ must be banned just as Mugabe banned inflation,. The ANC should pass a law banning power shortages and threaten jail to anyone who is foolish enough to do so. Pass the law and we can all shout and cheer at the wonders of the ANC and their corrupt leadership that extends from top to bottom.

  • MLH

    Totally agree. Our statesmen still cannot see beyond their next free meal.

  • http://mltdrives.com Dr Michel malengret

    Grid parity is almost here. What Eskom does is really irrelevant since independence is around the corner.
    It is just a pity that our Nersa, DOE, Public enterprise are so busy scratching their heads on how to profit personally out of renewable that they are delaying the emplementation of renewable for the benefit of all.

  • Peter L

    @Roger
    Renewable energy (Solar and wind)costs SIX times as much to generate as conventional technologies (coal – diesel and gas turbine are also much more expensive than coal and nuclear).

    Like me, you are probably less than delighted with Eskom’s 25% annual increases, which casue electricity prices to double,every 3 years (the effects of compounding).

    So you are seriously proposing a solution that involves a 500% increase in cost?

    The wind farms that I have seen on my Uncles farm in Denmark are anything but environmentally friendly – they have turned a once beautiful countryside into an ugly forest of wind farms.

    I have no problem with your proposals as long as users have a choice, like in S California – you can choose to pay R5,000 per month for your green energy, and I will pay R1,000 for my dirty, carbon emitting conventional power.

    DEAL, or no deal?

  • Thomas

    “… with uranium being an extremely rare element.”

    Um, no, it’s quite an abundant resource.

    From various websites: “uranium ranks 48th among the most abundant elements found in natural crustal rock.”
    “Uranium is more plentiful than antimony, tin, cadmium, mercury, or silver, and it is about as abundant as arsenic or molybdenum.”
    “The worldwide production of uranium in 2009 amounted to 50,572 tonnes” and “It is estimated that 5.5 million tonnes of uranium ore reserves are economically viable while 35 million tonnes are classed as mineral resources”

    This gives about 110 years of easily available uranium at current rates of mining, and 700 years if we’re prepared to dig a bit deeper. Compare this to coal and oil.

  • Melusi

    tidal energy is the future but it destroys marine life. Hydropower is the future but it destroys river life. Solar power is the future but it’s limited. Geothermal power is the future but it’s a recipe for earthquakes. Solution is man must live the way God wanted him to live. No technology, no electricity, no industries just life!

  • Da Guru

    Oldfox you are so wrong about KOEBERG. The french engineers are used as advisors. Locals maintain the plant. Oh as to the cost it was built into the original contract and continuess to this day.

    The blogger is also incorrect that uranium is the only nuclear fuel. True U235 is scarce but not so U238 which our gold mines produce as a by product. You can make U238 into more fuel and then their is thorium and then there is fusion which only needs hydrogen atoms.

    The only sense in this whole article and comments is the installation of private roof based solar panels and wind genrators where the excess is fed back in the grid.

  • chantelle

    Please may I have the name of the car that does 20km per litre under normal driving conditions?

  • benzo

    @ Dr michel: I a not an expert by no means but would it be feasable to equip any willing household with the solar equipment for free (or dramatically reduced cost), connect to the grid, then test for a year (or so) and then decide on buildin the additional power generators.

    Has anybody done these sums??
    Germany might have some meaningful input.

  • George Smiley

    A friend of mine had a substantial quantity of solar panels
    installed on her (cattle) farm in Northern Germany. The loan was sizable, but the monthly rewards from an electricity provider not only covers the loan repayments, it is even starting to provide a second income! There are also solutions to solar panel theft.

    Also, I have occasionally seen commentators cynically remark that Germany buys non-renewable power from it’s neighbours. The true story is that, at the end of the day, the German consumer has the choice. There is a long list of green providers, yet most of them are owned by non-renewable companies and the public is beginning to seek out the actual five (more ethical) 100% green ones.

    Recently I read a statement by an Entega spokesperson who tried to defend increasing criticism that while Entega scores highly for its ratings as a provider, it is nevertheless owned by German non-renewables company E.ON. Ok, I’ll come clean – I am a South African who by pure chance (long story;)), landed up living in Germany many years ago.

    One could definitely sense a between-the-lines embarrassment in that statement. A situation not helped by the fact (see Guardian) that the UK E.ON operation was recently found to have planted spies among environmental activists.

    But I digress.

    The opportunities and demand is definitely there, SA politicians just desperately need a vision. And certainly not a Chinese one.

  • Andre

    I read Thoughtleader for the writers as much as the comments and the one that fascinated me most was Melusi’s because his criticisms of the blogger were actually smart ideas, though he probably didn’t intend them to be.
    Why cant the government invest in huge solar farms in the North Cape, even if they only supply the province that is still resources that the country as a whole saves.
    And South Africa already sells power to other SADC countries so why cant we do research into building Hydro-electric dams in those countries with adequate rivers, we build them, we receive part of the power, everybody wins.
    There are ideas, just no political will or courage.

  • http://mltdrives.com Dr Michel Malengret

    Roger,

    Electricity for domestic use already cost over R 1 kWh in many cases and will at least double within 4 years and again double in another 4 years.
    Generating electricity with PV ( Photovoltaic Solar Panels ) presently cost R 2.5 a kWh and still coming.
    It is obvious to me that PV will beat coal within the next decade by miles.
    Who will then pay off the loan for those new coal power station which will then become uneconomical? Our tax money ?

  • George Smiley

    @Andre

    One of the five 100% green providers in Germany I mentioned is called “tchibo”, and is funnily-enough has up until now been more known for selling coffee in chains across the country, which just shows there must be money in renewable energy!

    It imports it’s power from “water power in Norway”. Cannot find much more info on that, but for this Germany has particular seals of approval that follows strict standards – so one can trust it.

    While SA may not have the water, other African countries just might. We do however have the sun and wind. Therefore exchange/business schemes could be set up with neighbouring countries. It’s a win-win situation for all.

    Now, just when can Mugabe get kicked out, a democracy set in place and renewable energy trading between countries begin? Without Eskom.

    Oh, and imagine all that without all the tender nonsense. Dream we should.

  • George Smiley

    @Peter L

    I have never been to USA and have not bothered to search the web to try and verify your R5000/R1000 figures.

    However, I can tell you as a resident in Germany that the difference in price between renewable and non-renewable energy sources is hardly noticeable, depending on which provider one goes for naturally.

    In the next few years, the intense competition that has come into being will see prices drop further as well as balance out even further. Now in 2011, renewable green energy is no longer a luxury commodity like you make it out to be.

    Further, as my first comment proved, not even the old “steep initial cost” is still relevant.

  • George Smiley

    Truly sorry for the many posts!! I just realised my first comment may not have been written that clearly.

    I meant to say the farmer friend actually sells her solar energy to a provider, who in turn sells it to the average consumer. It all runs automatically and conditions between her and the provider are set up in an initial contract. Hence the loan repayments run automatically too.

  • Thomas

    @GeorgeSmiley

    Your friend in Germany is paying the loan on the solar panels because Germany is paying her far over the odds for Solar Electricity.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feed-in_tariffs_in_Germany
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electricity_pricing
    The sites above show the FIT is R3.44, while the regular price of electricity is R2.15/kWh.

    Who is going to buy your power for R3.44 in SA? Eskom isn’t even interested in buying it at parity, R0.40/kWh or so.

    Solar PV cells won’t cost less in SA, they’re all imported from the east anyway.

    Solar power in Germany, wind in Spain, etc, are all political decisions like putting a man on the moon.
    Possible, but not really within our reach in South Africa.

  • http://mltdrives.com Dr Michel Malengret

    The interest cost of generating electricity with Medupi is already going to be more than 50 c so lets be real. The marginal cost of Eskom is over a 1 Rand per kWh already. 40 c was perhaps an average cost in the past.
    No one in the world can generate and distribute electricity from coal for less than a rand. This doesn’t even account for environmental damage.
    PV is still coming down and rapidly.
    A power station suposed to be amortised over 50 years acording to Eskom. In 5 to 10 years you can write them off as PV will be cheaper. Who will pay the loans that Eskom has taken ?

  • George Smiley

    @ Thomas

    Thanks for your comment. I do appreciate the reality of the situation and that it may appear rather “easy” for me to make such comments from this side. Also, that you are clearly more familiar with things than I.

    No doubt, for the average South African (myself included) the realities can be frustrating, particularly when reading where taxpayer money does actually go, or not.

    I have not actually asked my friend after any government incentives she might be receiving, but I certainly can do so.

    Perhaps I thought that within the context of Thought Leader, where ideas can be exchanged on a sometimes theoretical and not always practical level, it might in the end encourage further thought and, indirectly, maybe some kind of action.

    I always believed there is a side to many of us South Africans that seeks innovation and excellence. I can only hope that the right people do eventually see a way around these hurdles and do one day put forward a solid proposal to the SA government. Yes, and that they are heard. Perhaps I am hoping for too much, who knows. However, if the creative ideas stop, everything stops.

  • Biff

    Since when is uranium rare? High grade uranium maybe but there is still more than we’ll ever need and the processes of improving low grade ore are improving all the time.