Biomass could be the future of SA energy – if we do it right

2018-04-09 13:13
Vegetation such as this could form part of a biomass production zone. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Vegetation such as this could form part of a biomass production zone. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Biomass represents a sustainable energy source that could be the answer to South Africa's escalating cost of electricity, an industry insider argues.

According to Marko Nokkala, senior sales manager at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, South Africa is in the ideal position to develop biomass as an alternative energy source.

"In most cases the biomass we refer to for energy generation is based on existing cultivated area. In terms of climate change, planting more trees is naturally welcome but often the existing plantations already cater for a good and sustainable biomass source," Nokkala told News24.

He is responsible for South Africa energy sales and service operations southern Europe, Middle East and Africa at VTT Technical Research Centre.

Resource management

Nokkala argued that biomass resource management in South Africa was lacking, and this resulted in poor exploitation of the fuel source.

"In South Africa part of the problem is that owners of such biomass are not managing the resource effectively and therefore opportunities for energy generation are foregone.

"There are also examples of poor land providing biomass, for instance in Northern Cape or Northern Namibia where the acacia bush offers energy and can generate more land for cultivation if removed and converted to energy.

"As these areas have poor rainfall it is all the more important that [the] right type of plantation can take over the land from bush, which is at present a hindering factor for cattle grazing or farming activities."

Globally, biomass is experiencing growth.

According to the Worldwatch Institute, global biofuel production rose from 18 billion litres in 2010 to 105 billion litres in 2010. Of that, 86 billion litres was ethanol production and 19 billion litres was biodiesel.

In 2010, biofuel accounted for 2.7% of fuel used in road transportation, the organisation found.

The UN Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca) regards biofuel as the "largest single source of renewable energy" though it notes that the use of this energy has exacerbated environmental impacts such as deforestation in some areas.

Increasing demand

Unlike solar or wind energy, biomass fuel contributes to air pollution, but Nokkala argued that it was better suited to energy needs than coal.

"Biomass rates coal as 'backbone' supply, meaning that it is not bound by time or seasonality. However, due to the fact that it is less polluting and renewable it has benefits over the other backbone energy forms and, for above-mentioned reasons, over wind and solar as well.

He said the availability of sunlight, in particular, was limited at peak hour consumption, making it necessary to store energy, which can be costly. "Similarly, wind power is subject to conditions and can lead to shortages at the time of need."

Francis Kemausuor, in a report for The Energy Centre, Knust, in Ghana, found that demand for biomass in Africa would increase as policy on the continent catches up to biomass production in Brazil, the US and the European Union.

Declining coal quality in South Africa also provides an opportunity for biomass production, says Nokkala.

"In South Africa, the efficiency of coal to energy combustion is dropping because the quality of available coal is dropping. In that, biomass offers good opportunities. In addition, we need to reduce fuel to emissions and to decentralise power plants, and biomass offers opportunities here too."

South Africa's National Development Plan calls for an energy mix, highlighting the cost, quality and availability of traditional fuels.

"There needs to be a greater mix of energy sources and a greater diversity of independent power producers in the energy industry," reads the NDP, in part, though it acknowledges the dominance of coal as an energy source in South Africa.

The Uneca calls on governments in Africa to effectively manage food and energy security in terms of exploiting the potential of biomass.

"To facilitate the integration of modern bio-energy technologies into energy systems, greater coordination is required at regional, national, and local levels in Africa," reads the ClimDev-Africa policy brief.

The energy mix in SA relies heavily on coal. (DMR)

According to the Department of Mineral Resources, the total energy consumption in South Africa was 181 metric tons carbon equivalent in 2014.

Of that, coal made up 70% and renewables just 1%.

Nokkala suggested that South African government policy needed to be focused to specifically grow the biomass ecosystem.

"Incentives are important. Long-term purchase tariffs, freedom to supply to SAPP (South African Power Pool) through Eskom grid without contractual issues and municipality off-take can speed up local small-scale production.

"As biomass plants are highly location-specific to available biomass, it is imperative that such decentralised production is set up. This will also create large numbers of semi-skilled and skilled jobs in these areas, which are now underdeveloped but have natural resources available."

* Nokkala will present some of his ideas on biomass at the POWER-GEN & DistribuTECH Africa 2018 conference in Sandton in July.

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