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The Energy Conundrum (Sep 2010)

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 19 October 2010

 Electrical energy is the lifeblood of any country's economy and living standard, and the degree of development must inevitably be linked in direct proportion to its supply and consumption. With the pressure now growing to minimize the green gas effects of fossil based power generation, the move to renewables is gathering momentum. Added to this is the on-going dispute over nuclear power generation that is the only other form of large base-load technology with the exception of hydro power that is itself limited by the availability of sufficient water capacity.

While the battle between the reductions in fossil based power and nuclear continues with the usual largely misinformed input by the anti-nuclear protagonists, renewable energy is receiving a lot of attention in the forms of wind, solar, photovoltaic, biogas, wave and hydrogen. In SA, overlaying the issue is the impact of the large increases in the cost of traditional fossil based power created by the lack of vision and unbelievable naïveté displayed by the government in the years following the era in which we had surplus capacity in our fossil stations. Completely beyond comprehension was the belief by government that the independent power producers would suddenly emerge and be prepared to provide power at below cost, and certainly at tariffs that at the time meant a negative return on investment.

When the reality of the situation finally hit home through the load shedding debacle, we were then faced with the challenge of returning to the large "six pack” stations that were the norm for Eskom and which now had to be resurrected hurriedly, the costs of which now meant massive annual tariff hikes that will be substantial for the next five years.

The option of additional nuclear plants such as Koeberg seemed to feature in a sort of Nero-fiddling playback, and then we decided we had to dump the PBMR after spending enormous development costs and creating what must be substantial intellectual property that will, in the true form of these things, never re-emerge other than with competitors who will attract our brainpower.

The next amazing feature of this now manic-level response to the power challenge appears to be another illusion of adequacy in assuming we know how to plan ahead with renewables. One such illusion is the "plan” to have 10,000 GWh per annum of renewable capacity installed and available by 2013. This statement is reported in Engineering News on 23 August 2010. "Energy Minister Dipuo Peters was confident that South Africa would reach the target of producing 10 000 GWh of renewable energy by 2013, as set out in the renewable energy white paper of 2003. The target was said to represent about 4% of South Africa's total generation capacity”.

Given the 28 months left until the start of 2013 by which time the capacity must be installed, commissioned and connected to the grid which would have to be upgraded to accept intermittent input from diverse locations, then being very optimistic and providing 16 months to set strategy, identify parties, get licenses, do the EIAs, design, procure and deliver to a prepared site, then we would have 12 months to erect 1425 x 2MW turbines based on a load factor of 20% to compensate for the varied wind blanket. This factor is the maximum the Americans and Europeans have found possible from wind power. On this basis then we would need to install and commission 1,6 x 2MW turbines every day of the year including weekends and public holidays.

Whilst I believe in ambitious targets, this just makes one wonder who is advising the Minister and just how easily it is to influence non-technical people with illusory numbers. It took the Danes, the most advanced wind power nation in the world, over 30 years to install less than 7000 GWh in their well wind provided environment and with a grid that had been developed to accept the vagaries of renewable supply.

One does wonder who is planning South Africa's future infrastructure and how many engineering knowledge sources are being consulted or charged with developing such plans. Not once have the powers-that-be approached the SAIMechE to provide input to any engineering based plans.

The uninformed, as Lang said, seem to adopt statistics like a drunk man uses a lamp post, mainly for support rather than illumination.

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Chris Reay says...
Posted Monday, 22 November 2010
Author's note: In the editing, the reference to the assumption that 20% of the 10,000 GWh would come from wind was missed.
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