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.