South Africa’s renewable energy future By Andreas Spath

"When it comes to the environment, you’re always full of doom and gloom," my mate Daniel complained the other day. "It’s so depressing! Can’t you be a little bit more optimistic for once?"

"I’m just a realist and the planet is going to hell in a hand-basket," I replied, but in the end I had to agree with him – at least in part: like many other confirmed tree huggers, I have a tendency to emphasise the bad news and gloss over the silver linings.

A lot of green potential

Take electricity generation, for example. Yes, South Africa currently produces over 90% of its electric power by burning coal and as a result Eskom is one of the largest emitters of CO2 in the world, but this country also has a fantastic wealth of renewable energy sources which are practically inexhaustible and can be tapped without spewing masses of climate changing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

South Africa’s wind energy potential alone has been estimated at more than 50 000 MW and its solar energy capacity lies at well over 500 000 MW. To put these figures into perspective: Eskom currently has a total installed generating capacity of around 42 000 MW and is planning to add another 40 000 MW over the next two decades, using mainly coal and nuclear power.

Research shows that in conjunction with energy efficiency measures, 75% our electricity could be generated by exploiting renewable energy sources by 2050, slashing our CO2 emissions by 54% below 1990 levels and making massive strides towards avoiding catastrophic climate change. So where are the projects that are going to turn this huge potential for a green energy future into a reality?

Harvesting the wind power

Eskom has a 3.2 MW demonstration wind farm at Klipheuwel in the Western Cape.

The 4 wind turbines, 5.2 MW Darling wind farm in the Western Cape started producing electricity in 2008 and remains the country’s only commercial wind farm.

Irish company Mainstream Renewable Energy, in partnership with local outfit Genesis Eco-Energy, are planning to build some 18 wind farms in the Eastern, Western and Northern Cape, including 30 and 40 MW projects near Jeffrey’s Bay and Colesberg respectively.

Eskom has proposed a 100 MW wind farm at Koekenaap near Vredendal in the Western Cape.

Belgian company Electrawinds recently announced a partnership deal for a 25 wind turbines wind farm at Coega in the Eastern Cape.

The Nelson Mandela Bay municipality plans to build a wind farm with at least 10 wind turbines.

UK-based Renewable Energy Systems has proposed to install around 300 MW of wind energy projects in the Western and Eastern Cape.

The planned St Helena Bay wind farm on the West Coast is expected to produce 50 to 80 MW of electricity.

A 300 MW wind farm project near Caledon in the Western Cape was announced earlier this year.

The Tsitsikamma Community Wind Farm project in the Eastern Cape aims to produce about 40 MW by 2013.

Solar power

In October last year, government and the Clinton Foundation signed an agreement to establish the country’s first "solar park", which is to deliver up to 5 000 MW of solar electricity to the national grid.

Cape Town start-up Aurora Power Solutions is developing a 200 MW portfolio of solar power projects.

 Eskom is planning a 100 MW concentrating solar power (CSP) demonstration plant near Upington.

A factory for thin-film solar photovoltaic panels is to be built in Paarl.

Reality check

While this is an encouraging list of potential green energy projects, some realistic caution is in order. Sorry Daniel!

Even if they actually come to fruition, all of these proposed projects together only amount to a modest beginning. Government and Eskom are still chronically hooked on dirty coal and dubious nuclear power and their enthusiasm for renewable energy has been lukewarm at best. It’s up to us to tell them what we want: clean, renewable energy. Lots of it and soon!

Do you know of any other planned renewable energy projects in South Africa? Please let us know.