A lack of political will

2009-01-06 00:00

The real challenge to implementing renewable energy in South Africa is the lack of political will to transform Eskom. This is the view put forward by scientist and energy activist Liz McDaid.

McDaid, who has more than 20 years of research and activist experience on environmental justice issues, believes the barriers put forward by the government to renewable energy sources are “perceived, not real”.

Addressing the launch of Electric Capitalism: Recolonising Africa on the Power Grid, a Human Sciences Research Council publication, McDaid said “lip service” has been paid to the development of alternative energy sources by a government which is keen to appear progressive while pursuing a “business as usual” agenda.

In a chapter of the book, in which she claims South Africa has an abundance of renewable energy in the form of sun, wind and other sources, and that this energy can be harnessed to meet the energy needs of the country, McDaid has called on civil society to lobby the government for change in the energy sector.

McDaid said Eskom’s only “nod” to renewable energy is a pilot project, adding that the government puts up barriers to protect secret and vested interests.

“There are interests at play that want us to stick with uranium mining and that believe that implementing renewable energy will break things up. But that is what we need. Introducing renewable energy will give power back to people,” McDaid said.

“A commitment to moving away from polluting coal and nuclear energy and towards renewable energy would contribute to a healthy environment. It would improve socio-economic conditions for all citizens and provide a path of economic development which would grow the economy in a sustainable manner.”

According to McDaid, the current electricity generation and distribution monopoly suits the current industrial powers, while the government’s commitment to renewable energy has been limited to “paper statements or pilot demonstrations”.

“South Africa has an abundance of renewable energy, but estimates differ as to how much of this is useable. Eskom estimates that there is only about 1 000 megawatts (MW) of wind power available around the coast. However, based on the Department of Minerals and Energy figures for 2004, this figure is actually estimated at 50 gigawatts (GW).

“Our solar resources are among the best in the world, with solar radiation levels of between 4,5 and seven kilowatt hours per square metre. It is estimated that an area of 75 metres squared of solar energy per person would be sufficient.”

Among the options for electricity generation are solar photovoltaic (PV), solar thermal and wind power.

South Africa is one of the leading greenhouse gas producers in the world and McDaid believes that global initiatives such as the Kyoto Protocol and its successor are likely to put increasing pressure on the country to reduce its emissions. Further reasons for a move to renewable energy sources are the health and social benefits, as well as job creation.

“Localised affordable electricity generation by small-scale renewables leads to a reduction in dirty, coal-based electricity generation with an associated reduction in harmful emissions. Renewable energy shows enormous potential to create jobs. According to Agama Energy, if all renewable energy technologies are included, a total of 36 400 direct jobs alone could be created in the South African economy. Such a model assumes a government commitment to a target of 15% of total electricity generation capacity in 2020 through renewable energy technologies.”

Despite a large amount of knowledge about renewables such as solar PV, solar water heaters and wind, it appears such technologies are not accepted within Eskom.

“In the main, Eskom’s response to the international focus on renewable energy has been to put forward projects to assess the viability of the technology for South Africa, for example the Darling wind farm project in the Western Cape and the testing of solar water heaters and the solar funnel project in the Northern Cape.

“Eskom’s insistence on proving the effectiveness of technologies which are already proven in other parts of the world has resulted in the stalling of the implementation of renewable energy technologies.”

She said the use of pilot projects should be contrasted with the pebble bed nuclear technology project which has received huge support from Eskom and large amounts of government funding despite a financial track record which is “abysmal” compared with that of wind or solar technology.

“While wind and solar technologies are established throughout the world, the pebble bed technology is still in the developmental phase. The cost of the pebble bed demonstration plant has increased by a factor of five and completion of the demonstration plan is now six years off, having been expected in 2003.”

McDaid is concerned that Eskom’s R150 billion capital expansion programme contains no significant plans for renewables. “It is sobering to see that of a planned potential increase of 47 000 MW of new capacity envisaged by Eskom to meet South Africa’s electricity needs over the next 20 years, less than 0,2% will be in renewables.

“It could be argued that ensuring Eskom’s sustainability as a business is not necessarily going to ensure the most effective energy services for South Africa. Eskom’s financial sustainability is linked to generating the largest income from electricity sales in order to generate profits for Eskom.

“Decisions aimed at achieving this are unlikely to take account of externality costs such as toxic emissions unless forced to do so by the government. If Eskom makes decisions based purely on conventional cost comparisons with no political incentives to change to renewables, coal-fired power stations are likely to remain the lowest cost option in the short term. Such a strategy cannot be read in any other way than as a firm commitment to the continuation of traditional capital-intensive energy generation projects such as coal-fired power stations, with the addition of further fossil fuels, such as gas and hydro developments, in the region.”

McDaid believes there is undoubtedly a place for renewable energy in the energy equation for South Africa and the rest of Africa. “However, the target set for the South African renewables uptake is only four percent by 2013 and the underlying government assumption is that renewable energy technology is relegated to use by the rural poor and for small-scale applications, while mainstream electricity generation will be via traditional grid-based technologies.

“And yet, renewable technology is viable in areas of the world that are much poorer in renewable resources than South Africa. Renewables are economically viable and it is technically possible to produce large amounts of reliable electricity using these technologies.

“The real problem is not the economic or technical issues related to renewable energy but the absence of political will to take the lead. Former British prime minister Tony Blair’s response to the challenge of climate change summarises the political dilemma. There is a mismatch in timing between the environmental and electoral impact,” McDaid said.

She warned that the full horror of the harmful environmental impacts of South Africa’s current “dirty electricity generation path” may only be felt in 25 years’ time, whereas politicians only operate in terms of five-year electoral cycles.

“The only way that renewables will become mainstream in South Africa is if Eskom is instructed by cabinet to plough significant resources into the implementation of renewable energy technologies, not in the form of pilot research but as a roll-out of large-scale power supply.”

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