Andreas Späth

Where are SA's wind farms?

2012-10-16 07:06

Andreas Späth

Is there a rational explanation why South Africa doesn't have a burgeoning industry based on generating electricity from wind?

In a country with excellent wind power potential, both on land and offshore, and at a time when burning more fossil fuels in power plants should be classified as a climate crime against future generations, can there be any conceivable reason for wind power not to be a national priority?

A no-brainer

Here are just a few reasons why wind power is something we should invest in much, much, much, more as a country:

- When the environmental costs for producing electricity are taken into account – the types of expenses that are routinely “externalised” (read: “ignored”) when pricing power from fossil fuels and nuclear power – wind has been shown to be the world’s cheapest source of energy.

- A 2012 report from the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research dismisses naysayers and finds unequivocal evidence that wind power is reliable, efficient and can significantly reduce carbon emissions.

- The industry has a proven potential to create jobs. In the USA, for instance, there are now more than 470 domestic manufacturing facilities that make an array of wind turbine components.

- Last month, a group of US scientists showed that our planet’s near surface winds have the capacity to produce some 400 terawatts (TW) of electricity. All of humanity currently consumes a mere 18 TW. Another recent study contends that there is enough offshore wind potential along the USA’s eastern coastline to supply its entire annual electricity demand from Maine to Florida, about one-third of the country’s overall power requirement.

A global trend

From this year, China has the world’s largest installed wind power capacity at over 52 000 megawatts (MW). The country’s government is projecting a growth to more than 100 000 MW by 2015 and over 200 000 MW five years after that.

The USA has doubled its capacity to almost 50 000 MW in the last four years, while the European Union recently exceeded the 100 000 MW mark.

Worldwide offshore wind capacity has grown almost six-fold since 2006. In Scotland there is a proposal to build the largest offshore wind farm, which would generate enough electricity to power 40% of all Scottish households.

Ongoing innovations

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel (or the turbine) here. The generation of electricity using the wind involves well-established, off-the-shelf technology that has been employed successfully for decades.

What makes wind power even more exciting is that it is scalable, from huge commercial wind farms all the way to small household applications. It’s also a field that is continuously experiencing new developments, improvements and inventions.

More efficient kinds of turbines are being designed, software programmes optimising the siting and operation of individual turbines and entire farms are being developed, and a number of start-ups are even exploring the possibility of harnessing the immense energy potential of high-altitude winds.

There is great potential for integrating wind power systems into buildings in urban settings. Part of the electricity consumed by the home of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in Oklahoma City, for instance, comes from 18 vertical-axis wind turbines built into the roof of the building. They can start generating power at wind speeds of around 15 km/h, which is less than the city’s annual average wind speed.

One development that could be particularly interesting for water-scare South Africa comes from France, where a company called Eole is developing a wind turbine that produces power and extracts moisture from the air as clean, potable water at the same time. It’s the kind of technology that could provide both electricity and drinking water to communities in dry areas like the Karoo. Sounds better to me than polluting our water by fracking for climate-changing shale gas!

I’m not suggesting that we can or should produce all of our power from wind energy, or that we should shut down all of our existing dirty power stations tomorrow. What’s needed is a growing portfolio of diverse renewable energy sources, including wind, with a wide geographical distribution, that is integrated into a smart grid. It’s not a complicated project, but it’s high time that we got it started.

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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