Is There A Viable Alternative To Eskom? (Part Three)

In part three of this Eskom article, we take a look at Cape Town’s Energy Scheme, as well as the costs and problems presented by renewables.
Jason Snyman
2017-08-15
Is there a viable alternative to Eskom? In Part Two of this article, we took a look at the prospect of nuclear power in South Africa and renewable power in Cape Town. In Part Three, we take a look at the cost of renewable energy and the problems it presents.

Cape Town’s Energy Scheme

The City currently has a scheme that lets you sell surplus electricity back into the grid. The Black River Office Park in Observatory became the first customer of Cape Town’s electricity department to legally do so. The Black River Park Solar Project switched on following two years of pilot programs devised by the city to see how a feed-in tariff would work in South Africa. The fact that anyone can now apply to be an independent power producer in Cape Town is truly ground-breaking. So, why aren’t more South Africans going off-grid and producing electricity for themselves? Feed-in tariffs introduced in the UK in 2010 motivated a boom in the solar industry when regular consumers discovered they could be making a profit over the lifetime of a photo-voltaic generator on their roof. There are problems with this arrangement in South Africa. Paying for electricity generated on domestic rooftops may be worth doing overseas, in countries with a specific agenda for promoting renewables... But over here, the concern is that losing income from high usage customers will worsen the problem of infrastructure maintenance. Provided that’s where our money is going at all. Since we’ve seen the decline and since so many people can’t afford basic electricity, this leaves municipalities in a Catch 22. Power supply is constrained, but they can’t afford to reduce demand by supporting those who want to opt out of using it. Especially when these are the highest value customers. Cape Town’s scheme has been planned to make the best of the situation. If it works, well-off customers will stay customers, even if they contribute less, financially. For that same customer, it reduces the up-front cost of renewables and gives them something back in return.
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The Cost Of Renewable Energy

South Africa has almost a hundred renewable energy projects that are either fully operational or due to be completed over the next five to ten years. These are focused predominately on wind and solar energy, but also include biomass (plant photosynthesis energy) and hydro-electric. Solar power, in particular, has become a good alternative to Eskom’s traditional power. Shopping malls, office blocks and individual homeowners are rapidly turning to solar hybrid supply systems to reduce their dependence on conventional grid power. Five years ago, we’d be paying around R25 per watt for solar panels. These days, it’s dropped down to the region of about R7. Granted, there is an expensive initial layout involved, but once the customer reaches payback stage in about eight to ten years, the investment starts to pay off. Power from solar PV and wind today works out at least 40% cheaper than that from baseload coal. One big challenge remains the high cost of power storage, which is the only way to go solar, economically. The ability to store surplus power harvested during the day in battery banks and then use it overnight is key. Batteries are expensive, though, and need more maintenance than the rest of a solar system combined. Is solar alone a viable replacement for traditional power?
“No,” says Ballack of PQRS. “Not right now. Ten years ago, definitely not. Ten years from now, it could be. A solution without batteries would be the winning solution, if we can figure that out.”
Perhaps it would be better to sell that surplus back to the grid energy provider. It means extra power flowing into the grid during peak hours, and keeps demand for municipal power up at night. Unless Eskom or other offtakers are willing and able to take on excess power during the day and resupply it by night, the onus is on the individual small power producer to find a way to store it.

Problems With Renewable Energy

With Eskom is still moaning about the complexities of connecting outlying renewable plants to the grid and pro-nuclear nuts saying the technology is not stable enough to supply a country, renewable energy isn’t being rolled out as quickly as it could be. These arguments could, of course, be driven by self-interest. Eskom simply cannot compete with new renewables on cost. The nuclear industry stands to profit from that ridiculous trillion-rand deal. The more affordable solutions are not being embraced, and a number of myths, misconceptions and misinformation are preventing us from moving forward. This includes the fact that we can’t manage the weather. Hello. We live in a country with considerable amounts of sunshine and rampant wind conditions. These give us the perfect opportunity to diversify our energy generation plan, moving away from our crippling reliance on fossil fuels toward ‘green’ energy. If Denmark and Germany can do it, so can we. They argue that, because you can’t manage the weather, renewables still need back-up from conventional plants. They say that connecting renewables to the grid is too expensive and that they destabilise the power system, because ‘older wind and solar plants create fluctuations’. Technology has evolved, however, and we can now create plants that change their frequency and control their output. It’s easy and forgivable to assume that South Africa only chooses the cheapest technology for wind and solar plants, but Carel Ballack of PQRS assures us that this isn’t the case. “We are definitely on par with the rest of the world, in terms of technology,” he says.

In Closing

While Eskom appears to be regaining power stability and plant availability, the South African power sector is nonetheless a market in a state of change. We’ve become more energy-conscious. We’ve gone green. We want what’s best for the environment, ourselves and our neighbours. One might even appreciate the position Eskom is in, if they weren’t so inherently corrupt. They’re on a massive expansion programme and their existing fleet is performing better, touch wood. They’re forced to answer difficult questions. There is no doubt that we need diverse energy sources in the mix. We cannot focus only on baseload coal and gas requirements. We could also be asking why municipalities, manufacturers and big mining houses don’t become direct offtakers too, easing the load on Eskom. Our own government may be hesitant about implementing renewable energy, but they can’t prevent us from doing it ourselves. With this in mind, our soul incentive might be to become independent from Eskom, save money and ignore these ridiculous price increases. Could we break away from the corrupt politics which govern our quality of life? And could we take this control away from them? COULD you?
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