South Africa eyes green energy amid state utility woes

Courting independent renewable energy producers to help power the country’s economy
Green energy South Africa

With South Africa’s state electricity utility in dire financial straits, the government has reverted to courting independent renewable energy producers to help power the continent’s most industrialised economy.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, Energy Minister Jeff Radebe and the Treasury have all recently heralded solar and wind-powered plants as the answer to meeting South Africa’s future electricity demands, citing falling costs and environmental considerations. The government also needs private investors to help fund new infrastructure – Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd, which generates about 95 per cent of the nation’s power, can’t afford to maintain its aging coal-fired plants, the Treasury also has no cash to spare.

Renewable energy companies have reason to be sceptical. South Africa initiated one of the world’s most successful renewable-power programmes in 2011, which garnered more than 200 billion rand (S$19.4 billion) in investment from 112 producers. Projects  were however delayed for almost three years during former President Jacob Zuma’s tenure as he and Eskom officials pushed to build nuclear plants, a deal that was tainted by corruption allegations and was  eventually shelved following Zuma’s step down a year ago.

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“They’re putting things right,” says Mike Rossouw, an independent energy adviser. “The renewables outlook is getting better and better.”

The government now plans to split the utility, which produces three-quarters of its power from coal, into generation, transmission and distribution units in a bid to get it back on track. A move that should make it easier for the renewable energy plants to supply the national grid.

That’s imperative because financiers are becoming increasingly reluctant to fund coal-fired projects, amid a global move towards more environmentally friendly forms of energy, according to Radebe. The shift will be aided by improvements to batteries and other technological advances, he said.

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“Big centralised power generation plants will disappear and be replaced by distributed generation, mini-grids and batteries”, Radebe adds.

South Africa’s draft energy plan through 2030 sees 24,370 megawatts of generating capacity coming from wind, natural gas, solar and hydropower plants, which equates to about half of Eskom’s current installed capacity. Coal will probably be used to produce more than 65 per cent of the country’s energy by 2030, according to the official blueprint.

The government’s push for more renewable energy and a greater role for private investors has irked the country’s powerful labour unions, which are allied to the ruling party and fear Eskom and coal mines will fire workers en masse – a concern Ramaphosa claims unfounded.

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Brenda Martin, chief executive officer of the South African Wind Energy Association, said the renewable power programme has already created about 36,500 jobs with the potential to create many more.

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