It’s the Smart Grid, stupid

2011-01-27 00:00

A FAVOURITE argument of renewable energy (RE) naysayers goes something like this: "I really like the idea of solar and wind power, but we will always need big coal and nuclear power stations because the wind doesn't always blow and the sun only shines in the day."

I don't know where they get this — the coal and nuclear PR industry, or a general lack of imagination, perhaps — but I do know it's a red herring and in replying I always try to be as patronising as they were when they started the debate.

"Imagine I was a farmer somewhere out in the bundus and I wanted to meet my substantial electricity needs by using only RE sources. I wouldn't get very far with just a solar panel or a wind turbine. I'd do a bit better with some of both and better still with a bank of batteries to allow me to store excess energy. But the easiest way to make my renewable energy efforts truly sustainable would be to hook up — literally — with many others like me, spread over as wide an area as possible."

The answer to the question of stable, large-scale RE supply — the kind that can satisfy cities and industries and not just individual households — lies in the grid. The Super Grid, in fact.

More and more people are coming to the conclusion that RE can provide most if not all of our electricity needs. Spain already generates some 35% of its power that way and last year Scottish first minister Alex Salmond predicted that Scotland would produce all of its electricity needs from RE resources by 2025.

A 2010 study published by global assurance, tax and business consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers — not exactly the kind of people prone to rampant exaggeration — provides a detailed road map that shows how, by 2050, all of Europe and North Africa can be powered exclusively by RE. These kinds of mega-proposals, including the German-backed Desertec project, all hinge on super grids.

The idea is to tie as great a variety of RE generation sites in as widely distributed a geographical area as possible into one huge, interconnected, cross-national power network. The more linkages in the grid, the greater the possibility of smoothing out the supply provided by renewable sources such as wind and sunlight even if individually they are intermittent. In a super grid like that the sun doesn't always have to shine and the wind doesn't always have to blow to provide constant power.

The PricewaterhouseCoopers model involves hydropower from the Alps and Scandinavia, on and off-shore wind power from the Baltic and the North Sea, concentrated solar power from North Africa and southern Europe, and more. A southern African super grid could integrate on and off-shore wind energy from the Eastern and Western Cape, hydropower from the large rivers in the countries to our north, concentrated solar power from Namibia, the Northern Cape and Botswana, and much more.

The grid is scalable and wouldn't only be able to incorporate large power plants but also small-scale operations like surplus energy generated by industrial plants, power fed into the grid by solar panels and wind turbines from municipalities and private households, and plug-in electric vehicles which could serve as temporary, distributed electricity storage devices while they're parked at home or work.

Future super grids won't just be large. They'll be smart as well. They'll be able to monitor and respond to all of the components, be they big power stations or individual home electricity meters, enabling them to integrate intermittent RE sources and manage power generation and distribution with much less waste and inefficiency than existing grids which currently lose enough electricity annually to power all of Germany, India and Canada.

The basic technology required for the Smart Super Grid already exists and advances in large-scale energy storage and efficient, long-distance, high-voltage direct current electricity transmission lines are more than promising. Yes, large financial investments would be required, but do we want to spend our money on more dirty nuclear and coal power stations — the technologies of the past — which will run out of fuel sooner or later? Or do we want to invest it in a clean, low-carbon energy future that will be sustainable for generations to come? It's a no-brainer. — News

• Andreas Späth has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa's Cape Town Democracy Centre.

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