An alternative energy solution

2010-02-16 00:00

WORLD leader Mainstream of Ireland is ready to start building wind farms in South Africa with an output of five gigawatts at a capital cost of €7,5 billion (R78,7 billion) on four conditions, says its chairman, Dr Eddie O’Connor.

“We would want transparent regulations, a fixed price feed-in tariff, connection to the grid and someone to pay for the power.”

A local competitor of Mainstream, also eager to go ahead, complains that, even though Eskom­ can hardly meet demand, it is not co-operating.

“The National Integrated Resource­ Plans has a cap on renewables­, specifically wind, to 400 megawatts for 2013. Implementation of this is unclear but will probably be through a tender process.

“Nersa [the National Energy Regulator of South Africa] has yet to produce the terms of the power purchase agreement, which was supposed to have been released by November 2009.

“There have been changes within Eskom and the DoE [Department of Energy] around the positioning of the SBO [single buyer’s office] for electricity.

“Thus nobody is actually building.”

Eskom and Nersa have yet to comment.

Mainstream’s South African subsidiary claims to have proven in a scientific study that South Africa has enough wind to generate three quarters of current electricity supply from wind.

Says O’Connor: “Wind energy does not pollute the air, it doesn’t use water, which is very scarce in South Africa, and it carries no carbon tax, which will soon be levied on coal-fired power stations.”

He says Mainstream would be prepared to invest if it gets the R1,25 per kilowatt hour indicated for wind power. That is nearly double the rate charged by municipalities for domestic electricity, which ranges from 68 cents to 120 cents at peak times.

O’Connor says Eskom is already paying R2 to R3 a unit from diesel-driven emergency power plants. Once Eskom starts paying carbon taxes of €0,12 (R1,26) per ton of carbon generated­, wind power will be competitive.

He says coal-fired power stations last 40 years, whereas, with maintenance and replacement, wind turbines can last a century.

Wind turbines will be erected in clusters to feed substations connected to the national grid. They have to be at least 40 metres apart.

The two biggest environmental objections are that they look ugly­, transforming lovely agricultural land into a whir of spinning blades, and they kill birds.

O’Connor disputes the danger to birds: “First, we don’t build on major flight paths. I think I might have seen one or two dead birds on our sites over the months. People think birds are stupid. They fly around the turbines­.”

He makes the point that coal-fired stations kill a lot more birds through air pollution, heavy wager use and destruction of habitat. As for appearance, that’s a matter of taste. Some people think wind turbines are pretty. They take drives to go and look at them.

The capital cost of wind turbines works out at €1,5 million (R15,7 million) per megawatt or €7,5 billion for five gigawatts, which is just as expensive per unit as a coal-fired plant. Why is it so expensive?

“Those turbines are pretty big — 100 metres high with blades of 90 metres in diameter. There’s a 10-ton foundation and the nacelle is five metres in diameter and weighs 100 tons. Then there’s the turbine with copper, steel and glass fibre pieces, bearings and gearboxes.”

O’Connor said at the beginning virtually every part will have to be imported but, if South Africa commits to wind, as did the United States, big players would set up production plants for the various inputs inside South Africa. He believes that, in time, the local content of wind turbines will be far greater than that of the coal-fired power stations.

“Making the blades, for instance, is a very labour intensive business. It’s an ideal new industry for South Africa.”

— Moneyweb.co.za

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