Blowing in the winds of change

2008-02-25 00:00

Harold McMillan’s famous “winds of change” speech in 1960 about the need for socio-political change in Africa took place in Cape Town. Now a different talking point — the energy crisis — has once again brought the winds of change to the Western Cape. And a Pietermaritzburg man is helping to bring the natural force of wind to the forefront of South Africa’s quest for renewable energy sources.

Luke Callcott-Stevens (29) is involved in the development stages of setting up wind farms in the Western and Northern Cape, where studies have shown that wind speeds are sufficiently high for turbines to effectively generate a viable source of power.

“Wind turbines will help ease the current electricity crisis,” says Callcott-Stevens. “It is vital that we shift our focus away from thermal power, as is the trend around the world.”

Wind energy is a part of the government’s white paper on Renewable Energy. The department of Minerals and Energy (DME), Eskom and the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa), are three groups involved in the process of discovering and promoting private and state developments of renewable energy sources.

Thembani Bukula, Nersa’s top electricity regulator, told The Witness that in 2003 it set a target of 10 000 Megawatts (MW) of energy to be produced from renewable energy sources by 2013, focusing its research on bio-mass, wind, solar and micro-hydro energy.

“The electricity emergency situation will be addressed and the State of the Nation address by President Thabo Mbeki has ensured that this process has speedened up,” says Bukula. “Renewable energy has always been taken seriously, but now we are going to speed up certain processes. Instead of the usual 30 days for public comment, we are going to have 13 days of comment so the legislation for renewable energy is passed faster.”

Eksom is investing over R1,3 trillion in a capacity expansion initiative in which it plans to increase its power generation to 80 000 MW by 2025. This will be achieved through new coal and nuclear plants. The nuclear plants will produce 20 000 MW. The aim of having 10 000 MW of renewable energy is mainly for peaking-point power requirements.

Eskom started a demonstration wind farm at Klipheuwel in Durbanville and its three wind turbines are currently South Africa’s only example of wind power.

“The government is now developing a full-scale wind farm north of the Olifants River and that will produce about 100 to 200 MW of power,” says Callcott-Stevens.

Callcott-Stevens’s efforts were preceded by those of Herman Oelsner, who is the pioneer of wind power production in South Africa. After eight years of developing the wind farm concept, the Oelsner Group is about to complete its first phase of a wind farm in Darling.

Nicolas Rolland, an employee of Oelsner, told The Witness that by the end of last week they would have started with the process of assembling four towers and turbines, with a final assembling by Friday, which will produce 1,3 MW of power each.

“This will be followed by two weeks of commissioning and a final hand-over of the installation by March 19 with our plant fully feeding into the [Eskom] grid,” Rolland says.

Rolland says the Darling Wind Power project will this year embark on the second phase of the development.

“We are putting another six 1,3 MW turbines up this year, followed by another 10 when we enter the third phase.”

Rolland says the Oelsner group also has a solar thermal plant in Langefontein and a wave power generation plant. “This is a 770 MW wave energy installation on the west coast, using a South African design,” he says.

Callcott-Stevens is pleased with the farm sites he has found and says his company, GUS-EN Energy, has a vision of a much larger production of wind energy. “I’m developing the wind farms to have about 50 turbines, which will each produce two megawatts of power,” he says. That would be the equivalent of lighting up 5 000 suburban households.

“A good wind farm needs at least an annual average wind speed of 6,5 metres per second (m/sec) and higher at a height of 10 metres, but wind turbines will be higher where the wind is faster. The turbines will be between 50 and 80 metres high and the blades will have a rotor diameter of 90 metres.”

In total, each wind farm should produce between 100 to 200 MW, but Callcott-Stevens says the turbines will only ever work at 30% to 35% of their capacity.

A lot of money is spent on getting a wind farm to a point of production, which is why it took a year to do a prefeasibility assessment on his sites. “There’s a lot of investment that goes into the development. It takes about R20 million to develop the site, then it costs about R1,5 billion to build the turbines and lastly between R50 and R100 million to link up the electricity to Eskom’s grid.”

The reality of sustainable energy can only come into effect once the government finalises and signs into law national legislation regarding renewable energy production in the country.

“It’s been a long journey for Oelsner because he was ahead of his time, but when the new legislation is passed, quite a few developers, including myself, will be in the right place to join the tender process for a power purchase agreement, which should take place some time within the next year,” Callcott-Stevens says.

Important too is the fact that the neighbouring farmers to his sites are supporting the idea. “They too want to give back to the environment.”

Callcott-Stevens says wind energy will cost about 65 cents per kilowatt (c/kWh), while the energy produced from Eskom’s installed capacity costs from 16 c/kWh. The new legislation will help make this viable because the government will subsidise the costs in order to make the wind farms sustainable through a feeder tariff scheme.

Callcott-Stevens says GUS-EN Energy is in a good position to be awarded a tender. The alternative is to sell renewable energy at a premium to municipalities and industries who have shown interest. His environmental impact assessment is well on track; he has foreign investors to finance the project and he has some leading international equity partners. The legislation being enacted will subsidise renewable energy producers, due to the low cost at which Eskom buys power in South Africa.

“The DME will write up the framework of costs, which Nersa will regulate.”

His first two wind farms should be in operation by 2010, Callcott-Stevens says. “The following year the third and fourth sites should also be up and running.”

The question arises, with the subsidies and the use of renewable energy only for peaking-point emergency use: why even bother at all?

Callcott-Stevens says that the South African government is aware that it needs to be on the ball with renewable energy, because the European Union and other First World countries are getting fed up with developing countries not making an effort to change their coal-driven energy economies.

“We produce about 89% of our electricity through coal, only two percent through hydro-electric plants and almost zero through wind,” he says. “We have been very short-sighted about our energy resources and we could get left behind economically if First World countries put through protectionism laws which ban products from non-compliant countries.”

He believes the efforts to create renewable energy are not enough, but realises the costs are just too high for a developing country.

“The Group of Eight decided last weekend in Tokyo to put together $50 billion to initiate renewable energy technology transfer in developing countries.

“For South Africa, it is really just a stop-gap measure because of its huge expense,” he says. “Britain has just invested £500 million into laser fusion and in about 30 years’ time plans to introduce more affordable and viable forms of energy production to replace coal as the main producer of energy.”

McMillan’s “winds of change” speech heralded the end of colonial power. These winds of change may not herald the end of coal power, but at least they are blowing in the right direction.

• Check out the Sees visitor centre in Darling, an Oelsner Group initiative to promote renewable energy. It is an industrial complex with conference facilities showcasing renewable energy solutions with training facilities to teach professionals about renewable energy applications.

Who is Luke Callcott-Stevens?

Although he is originally from Pietermaritzburg, 29-year-old Luke Callcott-Stevens is currently based in Cape Town.

As of March he will be dividing his time between Cape Town and Europe as he starts to promote the Eoletec Vertical Axis Wind Turbine in partnership with Eole Inc. of Montreal.

He was educated at Michaelhouse and then at Maritzburg College. He graduated with a bachelor of social science degree at the University of Natal in 2001. He focused his studies there on philosophy, politics and economics.

Callcott-Stevens travelled the United States before working in the finance and industry sector in London. GUS-EN Energy is named after his father, Dr Gus Stevens, who was a chiropractor in Pietermaritzburg and died a few years ago.

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