Late last month Politicsweb published an article by Andrew Kenny headlined "How Eskom was laid low" but which soon turns into an exposition of the supposed demerits of renewable energy. The basic points are that the REIPP agreements, which Eskom was forced to enter into with producers of renewable energy, are unsustainably expensive; that the system cost is too expensive due to the cost of expanding the grid and the fluctuating nature of renewable energy; that renewable power plants are necessarily large scale and invasive; storage costs are too high; and that nuclear power is the clean and efficient alternative to coal electricity.
That the first round of REIPP agreements set high prices, is not contested. The idea though was to kickstart an industry by reaching economies of scale. In that sense it was a success, with associated competencies being created. Following rounds did indeed not repeat those initial high prices.
System costs are indeed very high, but fortunately South Africa already has a first class grid. Nobody suggests expanding the grid to reach new solar farms, as these can be erected right alongside the present grid.
The arguments on fluctuating energy generation by renewable plants and the large scale required can be responded to together. Although wind farms and concentrated solar radiation are necessarily of a large scale, the same is not true of photo-voltaic generation. These can be lumped together on solar farms, but they can also be distributed on rooftops all over the country. It can be compared to the internet, which comprises millions of computers worldwide, large and small. The South African electricity grid spans several climatic and time zones.
A multitude of rooftop pV facilities across the homes, farms, shopping malls and factories of South Africa, connected by the existing grid from sunrise in Margate to sunset in Port Nolloth will largely even out the fluctuating generation of a specific area.
The cost of storing electricity is also not what it has been. Lithium ion batteries are cheaper and more efficient than the previous generation of deep cycle lead acid batteries. Converging technologies have their effect here: Although electric vehicles don't care about the origin of the electricity used, it needs to store that electricity for an acceptable range. As petroleum is a major source of pollution, the transport industry invests in the advancement of that technology. That benefits stationary electricity users as well.
It is exactly the small scale in which solar electricity can be generated which leads to its current expansion. The largest expansion in photo-voltaic installations is not solar farms driven by large scale enterprises, but the micro- and small-scale of households, factories, shopping malls and farms. If I can save by installing my own panels, and even more by adding a few batteries, I use less of Eskom's electricity. And if I disconnect my house/farm/factory/shopping mall from the grid, I am unlikely to ever connect again.
That is why Eskom should concentrate on maintaining its first class grid and facilitating micro-, small- and medium scale installations to contribute to generation. If it expands sufficiently, they can soon switch off the most polluting coal power stations, and gradually replace it with a smaller capacity of nuclear generation for the so called base load.
The alternative might as well be to end up with generation facilities AND a grid which has to be sold for scrap metal.
Wynand Boshoff is leader of the Freedom Front Plus in the Northern Cape. Danie Coetzee is director of Solartrends, a company devoted to installation of solar plants and development as well as adaptation of technologies to be solar-compatible, and the party’s deputy provincial leader.