Renewables: Saving SA billions
As power-hungry South Africa waits for the endlessly delayed thousands of megawatts from Eskom’s new Medupi and Kusile coal-fired plants, cheap renewable energy is quietly piling on capacity.
Eskom’s desperate drive over the past seven years to bolster energy availability has seen a slew of mostly independently funded wind and solar projects being launched, many of which are already feeding the country’s grid. By June 1 800MW of renewable power had been added, while the department of energy has allocated another 7 000MW for procurement from independent power producers (IPPs). The cost of power production from renewable sources has plummeted since the department of energy opened the competitive bidding process in 2009. In the f irst-round bids six years ago, wind power was snapped up at 115c/ kWh, but by round two, bids came in at 100c/kWh. Round three saw companies bid their power at 74c/kWh, and by the time round four was reached in August 2014, the bid price had dropped to 62c/ kWh.
The cost of solar power dropped from 275c/kWh in round one to 79c/kWh in round four.
In contrast, the expected cost of coalfired power generation from Medupi is in the region of 128c/kWh. The final costs of nuclear power are forecast to be more expensive than coal.
The Council for Scientif ic and Industrial Research (CSIR) reported last month that renewable energy provided around R4bn in benefits to South Africa in just the f irst half of this year. The numbers were quantified by calculating how much the country would have lost − or would have been forced to spend − without access to these power sources.
In the report, the CSIR said the 2TWh (terawatt hours) produced by mostly wind and solar energy had replaced the electricity that would have otherwise been generated from the opencycle diesel-fired turbines and coal-fired power stations. The research body calculated this to have been a saving of around R3.6bn. In addition, power from the country’s solar and wind projects had saved the economy R4.6bn by negating the need for intensive power users to shut down operations.
The research body worked out that 203 hours of curtailment − also called “unserved energy” − had been avoided particularly in January when the supply was desperately tight. Between January and June renewable energy had helped delay load-shedding, enabled lower stages of load-shedding, or enabled Eskom to avoid implementing loadshedding at all.
According to Johan van den Berg, CEO of the South African Wind Energy Association, the cost to the economy of load- shedding stands at around R75/kWh. The benefits of renewable energy comes at a cost, however: tariff payments to IPPs amounted to R4.3bn from January to June this year. And because of Eskom’s empty coffers, at least one functioning renewable power station can’t be connected because the utility can’t afford to put up the required t ransmission l i nes. This situation − costing Eskom about R2m a month − began in October 2014, but the infrastructure is expected to be functioning by next month. And while renewable energy might be cheap and clean, the downside is that it isn’t always reliable. The sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow as hard as it is required to, and in periods of low rainfall, hydro power becomes increasingly unavailable.
Critics say that for every megawatt of power renewables produce, another megawatt needs to be made available from traditional sources like coal, gas and diesel as insurance against the vagaries of the weather.
However, Van den Berg said this criticism isn’t entirely accurate. Around two years of continuous assessment of wind availability and speed is carried out before a decision is taken to put up a plant. Van den Berg said that a range of wind harnessing technologies are now available. The choice of wind-