Green Light for Renewable Energy

By Mary Fife

South Africa has always been well-known for being rich in natural resources. Traditionally, we tend to think of natural resources in terms of minerals, but in the midst of an energy crisis, we cannot ignore the importance of wind and sunlight! Certain areas in South Africa are ideally positioned for the production of wind energy and 2500 hours of sunshine a year not only translates into a crazy amount of tanning time but also, a previously untapped source of renewable energy. With such a wealth of the resources required for renewable energy, why then does in excess of 90% of our energy still come from coal-fired plants?

According to finance minister, Pravihn Gordhan, coal-fired plants are cheaper and more convenient than any other method andwill therefore remain at the core of South Africa’s energy plan. The minister is not a fan of dirty energy but believes that the abundance and accessibility of coal, the industry’s financial contribution to the local economy (in both GDP and employment terms) and the fact that the economies of 5 other African countries rely on power produced in South Africa make affordable, reliable energy supply vitally important. That is huge responsibility, but what about our responsibility to the environment, minister Gordhan? We’re at the point where mining for coal is like digging our grave deeper and deeper and we need to stop while it’s still shallow enough for us to climb out!

There is however light at the end of the tunnel. The South African government has put policies in place that have already and are likely to attract further foreign direct investment in the area of renewable energy. Research company, Frost and Sullivan, predicted that Sub-Saharan Africa is likely to become a key area for global renewable energy investment. This puts us in a great position.  There are already several projects underway and if F&S’s predictions are anything to go by, there are several more in the pipeline.

The Darling wind farm (about an hour and a half outside of Cape Town) was a pilot project that intended to serve as a learning ground for the rest of the wind energy industry in South Africa. It has 4 turbines and produced its first energy in May of 2008. Just two years later Mainstream SA –a joint venture with an Irish company – have plans to build 9 wind farms in South Africa with a total number of 1 568 wind turbines with a generation capacity to power 6, 612 573 households.

In addition, South Africa has just presented to investors, its plans to build what could possibly be the largest solar park in the world to be built in the Northern Province which is ideally located. It is said to be in the top 3% of the sunniest regions in the world. The first phase of the project is expected to produce its first power by as early as the end of 2012.

The question then remains: when will we be able to claim that we are using “green” energy? The answer doesn’t seem to be very clear, but we can compare the energy mix of today with what the department of energy plans for 2030. Currently 90% comes from coal-fired plants and 10% from nuclear plants. The proposed energy plan for 2030 reduces the coal-fired component to 48%, with 16% coming from renewable sources and the remainder from nuclear and hydro-energy. Is 16% high enough? Should we be pushing for more? Probably. That being said, the reduction in the use of coal is definitely a step in the right direction. It may take a while for governments, experts and investors to figure this whole renewable energy thing out, but in the mean time, let the sun shine and the wind blow!

If you’re interested in learning more about the field of sustainability, or believe you have a contribution to make to organisations in the field check out our internship and volunteer opportunities related to this in Cape Town!

Mary Fife previously facilitated environment-related internship and volunteer opportunities for Connect-123 Cape Town program participants. In 2011 she left Connect-123 to join the Green Building Council, a non profit organization focused on promoting sustainable building practices and designs within the South African property industry.

Mary Fife


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