SA could have major advantage with renewable energy, say experts

South Africa has a competitive advantage in renewable energy and could become a major destination for electricity-intensive industries once the wind and solar sector is ramped up.

Engineer and researcher Tobias Bischof-Niemz, a former chief engineer at Eskom, said on Tuesday that South Africa had superb wind and solar resources, and a big enough supply of land to construct these power supplies at scale.

“These three things give South Africa a huge competitive advantage, which can never be taken away.”

Because of this, electricity from solar and wind would always be about 30% lower in South Africa than it would be in other parts of the world, which would make the country an attractive destination for companies that were energy-intensive.

Bischof-Niemz, a renewable energy expert and former head of the energy centre at the CSIR, was one of the speakers on a Sanedi panel discussion in Cape Town on the sidelines of the Mining Indaba.

Bischof-Niemz said the cost of solar PV and wind power had declined so much that it was now the cheapest electricity option for many countries for new power generation.

By 2050 most of the global electricity supply would be generated by solar PV and wind, he said.

The draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), the road map for South Africa’s future electricity mix, had recognised this, which was a good sign for the country. Another advantage of renewables was that they were more labour intensive than the current forms of electricity generation – although this may not appear to be so when casually viewed from the outside.

Bischof-Niemz said a coal power station like the huge Medupi, still under construction, would employ between 600 to 800 people fulltime.

“The impression may be that coal generation is labour intensive, and when you drive passed a wind farm you may see only about eight people.”

But that was not the way to compare job creation from different power sources.

“The reality is that Medupi produces 100 times more energy than the largest wind farm. So the right way to compare them is by the number of permanent jobs created by the unit of energy produced. Then you will see that renewable energy is more labour intensive than coal, so there is a net benefit to the country for jobs.”

The downside was that most of the current energy infrastructure was located in Mpumalanga, where the coal resources were. Renewable energy power plants would be spread across the country.

“In the future energy system there will be more people employed but across the country, which is good, but it is irrelevant for the individual coal miner in Mpumalanga.”

Because of this, there was an obligation on the country to ensure the declining jobs in the coal sector were absorbed by deploying new energy infrastructure, solar PV or wind plants, close to the old coal areas.

Bischof-Niemz said it was incorrect to say that solar and wind power was “intermittent”, which implied that there would be unforeseen stops in generation. This was not the case.

“Wind and solar power is not intermittent. It is variable, it changes over time, and these changes are predictable.”

Forecasts allowed energy operators to foresee changes in wind and sunshine availability, and deal with these by bringing on a flexible power supply, such as gas, during those times.

“You need other power generation to kick in when there is not enough of solar and wind. You can’t do that with coal.”

The complimentary power generation, such as gas, would provide about 10% of power generation over time, the rest would come from renewables.

Bischof-Niemz said if South Africa were to construct an electricity system from scratch, 90% of the country’s needs could be supplied by wind and solar, with 10% from gas or biogas. The reality was that we had a big, existing coal powered electricity system. How much renewables South Africa would bring in would depend on how quickly Eskom’s coal fleet was ramped down.

“The coal fleet is aging with such speed.”

It may be that by 2050 the only coal power stations were Medupi and Kusile.

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