Blowing in the wind
The road heading from Port Elizabeth past the surfer’s paradise of Jeffreys Bay and onwards along the picturesque Garden Route is easily among the most scenic worldwide. Hamlets open up to undulating hills and shady forests with deep ravines traversed by massive concrete feats of engineering.
What has changed in recent years, though, is that now the landscape is also dotted with some very futuristic-looking wind turbines reaching up to 80m high with giant, rotating blades. It is a change to the landscape which has become a thorny issue, splitting even the tight-knit environmental fraternity.
In developed countries, such as the UK, across Europe and over the Atlantic in the US, wind farms are common occurrences. So much so that their investors – and the companies which build the giant turbines – are now looking to developing countries to set-up shop.
To some a wind farm is a blight on the horizon, causing visual pollution and ruining the natural landscape. But to proponents of the developments wind farms represent a changing world; a world where archaic and polluting coalfired power stations, complete with their plumes of black smoke, must be replaced with clean energy alternatives such as wind and solar power.
The Eastern Cape has become a hotspot for wind farms, with about 80% of the 15-plus major developments countrywide located within the province. Trucks warning of ‘abnormal loads’ ferrying pieces of the giant turbines to sites throughout the region from the ports they have been shipped into have become commonplace.
The latest operation to off icially launch in the region also happens to be the largest wind power generation facility countrywide, and throughout Africa for that matter. The bragging rights of having the largest wind generation facility in Africa belongs to the investors of the 138MW, 60-turbine Jeffreys Bay Wind Farm for about another six months when 140MW Cookhouse Wind Farm to the north of the province comes on stream.
In a prepared statement handed to the media at the launch, Mark Pickering, general manager of the Jeffreys Bay Wind Farm, said: “In a country struggling to meet its escalating demands for electricity, we are proud to be contributing around 460 000 megawatt hours [MWh] per year of electrical energy to the national grid.”
This would power about 100 000 households, he added.
“It’s remarkable,” continues the statement, “to consider that by the end of this year the country will have more than 400 turbines reaching into the sky, all helping to reduce the use of fossil fuels and precious water in meeting the country’s energy requirements”.
But it was ahead of the off icious ribbon-cutting ceremony that journalists were able to have a frank discussion about the operation and the global trends of renewable energy projects with Pickering and his bosses, major investors in the project Globeleq (50.1% shareholding), represented by CEO Mikael Karlsson, and Mainstream Renewable Power (8.9% shares), represented by CEO Eddie O’Conner.
The advantage of having banks and global institutions clamour to set up wind farms in South Africa is competition. According to O’Conner, the competition has forced the price of wind power down in recent years to an average of 76c/unit.
This, he said, was in stark contrast to the cost per unit of power coming from coal-f ired power stations being commissioned by Eskom, coming in at 99c