Solar road beats nuclear follies

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Following president Zuma’s disastrous finance minister shell game, Cabinet’s approval for starting the trillion rand nuclear procurement programme sans an initial cost-benefit analysis and evidence of the Gupta family’s growing investment in South African uranium mining, does anyone still believe that the government’s plan to build a fleet of new atomic power plants has anything at all to do with sound economics, securing the country’s long-term electricity supply or moving us to a low-carbon way of doing things that will help to mitigate the effects of climate change?

I don’t think so. Financial profits for strategically connected corporates and attractive kick-backs for well-placed and well-pliable politicians and their entourage are the real reasons why the powers that be refuse to alter their nuclear power course despite noisy opposition from all corners.

This is especially shameful for a country that has all of the prerequisites required to become a global leader in renewable energy production and that certainly doesn’t need to expose itself to the high costs, poor safety record, persistent environmental problems and outdated technology of the nuclear industry.

The really innovative break-throughs are not happening inside nuclear fission reactors these days, but in renewables. Take the example of the world’s first solar road.

Last year, a Dutch consortium installed a bicycle path in suburban Amsterdam that captures the energy contained in sunlight and turns it into electricity. Paved with ordinary silicon solar panels which are protected by a concrete frame and sandwiched between layers of strong, tempered safety glass, the path can happily handle everyday road traffic. The power generated when the sun shines is fed into the grid, just as with more conventional solar installations.

Since then, the performance of the ‘SolaRoad’ has been carefully monitored and it turns out to be even more efficient than its creators had first expected. The experimental pilot project is a mere 70 metres long at the moment, but in the first six months of operation it generated more than 3000 kilowatt-hours of electricity. That’s enough to supply a single-person Dutch household for a year, or, as SolaRoad spokesperson Sten de Wit explains, “to power an electric scooter to drive 2.5 times around the world”.

Of course, the project wasn’t cheap to construct, costing many times the amount of a comparable roof-top solar panel installation. As such, the prototype doesn’t make any economic sense at this stage and perhaps it never will. It may, however, turn into something much bigger in the long-run, for instance by powering the smart traffic management systems and the self-driving electric vehicles of the future.

My point is this: the world is going solar and renewable in all sorts of innovative ways. This is the area where real change is happening right now. Given the wealth of year-round sunshine we receive, South Africa ought to be spearheading this revolution.

We shouldn’t be wasting time and money we don’t have on a dangerous, dying and polluting dinosaur technology. Groundbreaking improvements are happening in the field of renewable energy on a daily basis. The nuclear energy industry, by contrast, still hasn’t solved one of its most basic problems after decades of trying: where and how to securely store the radioactive waste it produces for long enough to make it safe.

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

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