Renewable Energy for Africa. What’s the holdup?

Africa suffers from an under provision of electricity in spite of an abundance of sun and wind.  Why is electricity from renewable energy not being fast tracked?  These questions underpin the tension between people pushing for renewable energy and energy utilities that appear slow to connect.  Presentations at the African Utilities Week & Clean Energy Conference 12 – 14 May 2015 provided some informative discussions but not nearly enough solutions. Perhaps the real answers are socio-political rather than technical?  What do you think?

Even at the level of rooftop PV, which is technically easier to connect to the grid, support from the authorities is slow and feed in from small scale energy generators (SSEG) is capped.  In South Africa and Namibia a domestic PV system may not be a net exporter of electricity but must balance what it supplies in the day with what it demands when the sun is not shining. Until this changes SSEG cannot contribute to the broader electricity supply.  Perhaps when demand patterns shift to correspond with optimal PV energy capture to charge batteries, electric bikes etc, then the authorities will acknowledge value of rooftop PV.  In the meanwhile the technical reasons given for restricting the feed in from SSEG include old transmission systems that can’t accommodate bidirectional flow and problems with balancing fluctuations in demand and supply.  However, countries such as Germany have a significant amount of rooftop PV with feed in so it is technically possible!

In South Africa, local authorities are suffering from reduced electricity sales as a result of load shedding, reduced consumption due to energy efficiency and an increasing number of PV systems. Most of the households that are installing PV systems are the ones that were paying higher electricity prices. This generated revenue to help subsidize below cost of supply tariffs to vulnerable communities and to top up city revenue accounts. Perhaps some of the resistance by authorities to renewables has to do with traditional systems of revenue from electricity sales?

Global electricity generation is transitioning from cheap but dirty fossil fuels to renewables. It is time that ESKOM and the authorities transition to co-operative and localised models of generation and distribution. Consumers also need to be educated regarding the costs of different energy technologies as well as the time of use costs of electricity.  Time of use tariffs and smart meters can facilitate a move to balancing consumption and optimising energy availability.

At the larger scale, electricity from renewables is not new to Africa.  Many countries have a long history of hydroelectricity both as primary energy source and as an energy store during peak demand. Energy from hydro and geothermal is a consistent and predictable source which makes it easier to connect them to the energy grid.  Wind, PV and CSP (Concentrated Solar Power) on the other hand experience fluctuations in energy capture based on varying wind speeds and hours of sunlight. Utilities with traditional grids can absorb wind and PV energy, even with the fluctuations, but only up to a certain percentage of the total expected electricity supply. Thereafter, apparently, it becomes more difficult to balance the power on the grid and to keep it stable. Coal in Africa and nuclear power plants overseas have traditionally provided a high baseload capacity.  However, they are not flexible enough to switch on and off in response to higher feed-in from wind and PV and therefore are not ideal energy partners to wind and solar. New generation CSP promises increasing energy storage abilities as does fuel cell and lithium-ion battery technology.

Some countries are coping better than others with integrating renewables such as wind and PV – so clearly there are technical solutions. Improved prediction models for wind and sun, smart grids, decentralised mini-grids, improved energy storage and direct sales from Independent Power Producers to consumers such as mines, industrial complexes and municipalities are some of the options. However, some countries are placing a cap on the amount of electricity from wind and PV until they can better manage the integration. Once again, it is not easy to determine if this is essentially about integration or if it has to do with protecting traditional sources of revenue and established energy utilities.

Mbulelo Kibido of Eskom offered some frank lessons from South Africa at the African Utilities Week & Clean Energy Conference  about connecting to large scale renewable energy.

ESKOM did not anticipate the high level of interest in renewables. The demand for new investment in the transmission network to accept the feed in from renewables is challenging ESKOM at a time when the utility is struggling to address the maintenance backlogs across its aging infrastructure.  Neither is the existing transmission network fully compliant. Adding new sections therefore potentially increases the risk of breakdowns. That said it appears that the critical time for funding for new connections will be from 2019 – 2022 when an estimated R11 billion will be needed for connection upgrades. This has not been budgeted for as the energy regulator must first approve new tariffs to fund the connections.

South Africa’s renewable energy rollout is gaining momentum and is an internationally acclaimed success story.  1.8GW of the current approvals for 5.24GW of renewables have already been constructed.  In April 2015 the Dept. of Energy announced its intention to open tenders for an additional 6.3GW of renewable energy for future bidding rounds.  While the country is benefitting from renewable electricity funded and constructed by Independent Power Producers, ESKOM is still responsible for connecting it to the grid.

Wind and PV happen so fast – it takes less than 3 years from let’s go to lights!  Eskom is used to long lead times before a new plant is commissioned (e.g. Medupi). Three years does not provide enough time to plan, budget and upgrade or build new transmission lines.  It takes over a year just to get an environmental authorisation for new transmission lines never mind negotiating with farmers and sourcing funds for servitudes across private land.

Cost estimates for transmission is included in the renewables bid process as a formal Cost Estimate Letter.  Historically many of these have been a significant underestimation.

The most suitable sites for wind and PV are often far removed from the areas of high demand such as Gauteng and the existing high kVA transmission networks.  South Africa’s best wind is along the coast, while PV is best in the Karoo and North Western Cape.

These issues are not unique to South Africa.  The Lake Turkana Wind Energy Farm in Kenya had similar problems.  The power plant kV rating was too high for the existing grid and was 430km from the nearest substation.  Significant funding had to be sourced to build new transmission lines to Nairobi where the bulk of the electricity was needed.

Solutions offered by Mr Kibido include:  A baseline report identifying network capacity as well as the demarcation of geographic renewable energy zones where capacity could be increased. This would reduce potential misalignments between utility planners and IPPs and to help address issues of funding and connection delays. Likewise it makes sense to avoid large projects in areas with remote networks. Finally, special additional funding is required to fast track grid connections.

In conclusion and not part of Mr Kibido’s comments. It is worth considering that ESKOM is a super- sized utility that appears, in partnership with the Dept. of Energy, to prefer super-sized projects.  Medupi and Kusile will be the 3rd and 4th largest coal fired power stations in the world.  Against any reasoning that relates to affordable electricity provision President Zuma and the DoE appear to be intent on new nuclear.  Transitioning to renewables requires a different approach to energy – the adoption of a mix of energy sources,  localized plants and private public partnerships that embrace smart technology to capture energy and to manage demand.  An approach that is less infatuated with big power and is more concerned with energising communities while growing local skills and facilitating electricity independence that genuinely serves South Africans.

Kim Kruyshaar 20 May 2015




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