by Bibington Maravanyika

Renewable energy holds key to the future

With Eskom unable to generate enough power for the country through its major energy source–coal–the need to vigorously pursue the production of renewable energy in South Africa cannot be overemphasised

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With global warming being one of the world’s most pressing problems, the pursuit of clean sustainable energy becomes not only necessary, but urgent. According to the Department of Energy (DoE), South Africa’s energy demand is expected to double before 2030.

Renewable energy is power obtained from renewable resources which naturally replenish themselves, such as sunlight, wind, waves, rain, biomass, and geothermal heat. The energy sector in South Africa is an important component of global energy regimes due to the country’s innovation and advances in renewable energy, and therefore the sustained pursuit of sustainable energy has the potential to change the country’s power situation irreversibly.

With the current power deficit, it is crucial that Independent Power Producers (IPPs) play a significant role in addressing future electricity needs of the country through small-scale renewable projects. Besides helping meet the country’s power needs, this will reduce the funding burden on Government and relieve the borrowing pressure on Eskom.

According to the Centre for Public Impact, economic growth and electricity consumption have been outpacing power system capacity-building in South Africa for well over two decades, and among the options that were not being sufficiently deployed was renewable energy. In view of this state of affairs, the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) has been established to focus on using public-private partnerships with independent power producers to develop sustainable energy facilities.

The main government stakeholders in the push for renewable energy are the DoE, National Treasury and the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA).

Solar energy

Solar energy is used to power electronic and electrical gadgets, and like other renewable energies, is very safe and environmentally friendly, making it an ideal source of energy for Industry 4.0. There are no emissions as in coal-powered stations since the source of fuel is the sun.

According to the DoE, South Africa has higher degrees of solar radiation than most other countries and the intensity of radiation is almost twice that of Europe. Most areas in South Africa average more than 2 500 hours of sunshine per year, and average solar-radiation levels range between 4.5 and 6.5kW per square metre per day.

The Southern Africa region, and in fact the whole of Africa, has sunshine all year round. The annual 24-hour global solar radiation average is about 220 W/m2 for South Africa, compared with about 150 W/m2 for parts of the USA, and about 100 W/m2 for Europe. This makes South Africa’s solar output one of the highest in the world.

Solar energy is the most readily accessible resource in South Africa. It lends itself to a number of potential uses and the country’s solar-equipment industry is developing rapidly. Annual photovoltaic (PV) panel-assembly capacity totals 5MW, and a number of companies in South Africa manufacture solar water-heaters.

Research has been undertaken to evaluate the potential energy savings and financial benefits of residential solar water heating. The technology is very successful in South Africa and Eskom has assisted the South African Bureau of Standards to test a variety of different domestic solar hot water systems in order to determine the best suppliers for solar installations going into the future.

South Africa’s water heating load is primarily electricity and there are great benefits in freeing up electrical capacity when electric geysers are replaced with solar equivalents. Solar water heating is by far the most cost effective renewable technology in South Africa. The cost/kW could easily be as low as R22,500/kW compared to other renewable technologies which could be as much as R100 000/kW.

The hot water market constitutes approximately 30% of the South African energy consumption in the combined domestic, commercial and industrial sectors.

Wind power

For time immemorial, wind was under-utilised as a power source until a breakthrough by scientists. Wind can now also be used to generate electricity. Wind energy, like solar energy, is a free renewable energy source and will never run out.

The amount of energy that can be extracted from wind power depends on its speed. The higher the wind speed, the more energy that can be harnessed to generate electricity on a large scale. However, this requires large tracts of land to install enough wind turbines and generators.

South Africa has fair wind potential, especially along the coastal areas of Western and Eastern Cape.

Sere Wind farm in the Western Cape is one of the largest wind farms in Southern Africa, with a production capacity of 100 MW. The project is estimated to have cost about R2.689 billion and was fully commissioned on the 31st March 2015.

Hydro power

Energy from water can come from waves, tides, waterfalls and rivers and will never be exhausted as long as water is available. South Africa does not have much in terms of hydro power generation, and imports electricity from Cahora Bassa hydropower station in Mozambique. There is also potential to import more hydropower from countries such as Zambia which generates its power from the Zambezi River and Zaire which has unlimited potential on the mighty Congo River. Such imports would make South Africa less dependent on coal-fired power stations.

However the generation of hydroelectricity is not without environmental effects. Large areas of land may be flooded when dams are built. This will disrupt wildlife habitats and residential and farming areas. Another problem is that cold water released from deep in a dam may have little dissolved air in it. If large amounts of this water are released into rivers, fish may be killed. But a more streamlined management approach can be used to avoid this.

Global pressures regarding the environmental impact and displacement of settlements by huge storage dams sometimes limit the exploitation of hydropower on a large scale.

Hybrid energy

Hybrid energy systems are a combination of two or more renewable energy sources such as PV (photovoltaic), wind, micro-hydro, storage batteries and fuel powered Gen-sets to provide a reliable off-grid (a source of energy not connected to a grid) supply.

Bernard Marr, a futurist and a strategic business & technology advisor to governments and companies says the digitisation of processes has led to a significant transformation regarding the way products are produced and services rendered as a result of Industry 4.0. He says a key component of Industry 4.0 is the Internet of Things which is characterised by connected devices. Not only does this help internal operations, but through the use of the cloud environment where data is stored, equipment and operations can be optimised by leveraging the insights of others using the same equipment or to allow smaller enterprises access to technology they wouldn’t be able to afford on their own.

As Industry 4.0 unfolds, computers will be connected and communicate with one another to ultimately make decisions without human involvement.

According to Takunda Gumbo an IT specialist, in the production of hybrid energy for example, computers can coordinate to save water if they realise that the maximum required energy can be generated using mostly wind and solar energy. Water which could have gone towards hydro power generation can be saved in the reservoir and used for other purposes such as irrigation or domestic use.

“Through the Internet of Things, amazing things can be done by computers on their own. For example in a hybrid energy set up, if solar, wind and hydro power are expected to collectively generate a certain amount of energy, but it happens that solar and wind cannot meet their quotas because there is not enough sunshine nor enough wind, the network of computers can coordinate to open an additional floodgate to generate more hydro power to cover the shortfall arising as a result of poor sunshine and wind,” says Gumbo. 

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