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The future is in renewables – that’s where the tech...

Our Burning Planet

Opinionista

The future is in renewables – that’s where the technology is headed

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Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

After a 15-year wait, the government has suddenly leapt into – well, more like talked about – how it is going to solve Eskom’s rolling blackouts.

It is only politicians who seem to think that making a speech constitutes action, but it doesn’t, regardless of how heartening it is to hear President Cyril Ramaphosa actually address the biggest crisis in the country.

To say South Africans are sceptical is an understatement. Just a few weeks ago, Ramaphosa was talking about a second Eskom. When he announced the 100MW increase in self-generation capacity last year, it seemed like a breakthrough. But in the background, nothing changed. All the onerous red tape still existed.

I’d truly like to believe the President had been roused from his Rama-somnambulance but, based on the past five years, he’s all talk and no action.  

If Ramaphosa truly wanted to change things, he’d fire Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, a self-confessed “coal fundamentalist” who is clearly trying to ­sabotage any shift away from the ANC’s patronage network.

Anyway, this is a technology column, so let’s see how tech could solve the problems. 

Coal-fired power stations are like wooden galleons with big, cloth sails. Since those once-dominant vessels were used by European powers to conquer Africa, Asia and America, there have been numerous upgrades to the technology. From steam engines to diesel and nuclear (for some navies), technology has enabled faster and better transport. The same goes for outdated business models, Mr President.

The future is in renewables, especially in a country with 300 days of sunshine a year. And batteries for storing that energy. But the ANC doesn’t have patronage networks in either of those, despite the absurd calls for “local content” that would create them.

Mantashe, and seemingly Ramaphosa, can’t look at the history of a technology – in this case, how to generate electricity – without pining for the good old days, circa 2006… or 1652. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: “How innovation can help forge global solutions to the existential threat of climate change

Every time #loadshitting re-emerges, there is a wringing of hands from Ramaphosa and his Cabinet about the power problems the ANC allowed to develop, with help from the Guptas and by overstaffing Eskom with underskilled trade unionists who helped #PresidunceZuma get into power.

Ramaphosa has repeatedly made pronouncements about fixing Eskom, including this one from September 2015: “In another 18 months to two years, you will forget the challenges that we had with relation to power and energy and Eskom ever happened.”

It reminds me of that brilliant – but tragic – headline on the satirical Onion website about the never-ending gun massacres in the US: “‘No way to prevent this,’ says only nation where this regularly happens.”

Sadly for the ANC, the residents of South Africa are no longer being duped, especially after it emerged that ministers and their deputies – who earn around R2-million a year – are issued with government-sponsored generators that have cost taxpayers R2.6-billion so far this year.

Angry Ekurhuleni residents told Ramaphosa before last year’s municipal elections that they had had enough: “No electricity, no vote”, read handwritten placards.

How did the president respond last October, amazingly with no sense of irony? “Which other party do you trust to ensure that electricity is restored here?”

Not even the satirical Onion could make that up. DM

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief of Stuff.co.za and publisher of Scrolla.Africa.

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  • It is somewhat disappointing that a piece with an assertive title as this, fails to provide any technical and cost data on how this renewable future will work and what it will cost at a utility scale. Large scale renewables requires energy storage capacity that is currently affordable, so instead gas is used to match the oft massive mismatch between supple and demand. Real life examples is where California has to pay neighboring states to take power at peak solar times, and buy back at a massive premium when in deficit. Germany can only sustain it’s considerable renewable mix with imported nuclear power from France and a fleet of gas turbines dependent on Russian gas. As a result, electricity costs are rapidly increasing in these green electricity hubs. The financial structure of 1st world energy markets also skews capital towards short term gains at the cost of long term solutions that yields the best returns for society. It is such an naive oversimplification to say the solution to all our energy problems are wind and solar. Oh, and with a battery thrown in so we can watch TV at night..

    • Excellent response. Sunshine and batteries are for the super wealthy. The other factor that is not given enough attention is the “energy density” of renewables, for example: “It takes the energy equivalent of 100 barrels of oil to fabricate a quantity of batteries that can store the energy equivalent of a single barrel of oil.”

      • About the energy density – yes i think it needs more discussion. You don’t say where your quote comes from. I wonder how that was worked out? Wouldn’t the 100 barrels to make the batteries balance out over the lifespan of the batteries? Ours have been going for 10 years without any problems. We anticipate at least another 5 years.

        I am also concerend about the other end. What happens to all the solar panels, batteries etc when they reach the end of their life? Recycling? Dumping in less resourced countries/ areas?

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