2015: New era or dark future?

January 6th, 2015, Published in Articles: Energize



Mike Rycroft

Without getting into any arguments about how the start and finish of decades are calculated, I will state that we are now just past the halfway mark of the 2010s decade. 2015 seems to be a good target year for achieving goals by many programmes, in fact the whole decade seems to have been chosen for the achievement of goals. One that springs to mind is the goal of 10 000 GWh of renewable energy generation by 2013, set in the white paper on renewable energy in 2004. This implies the generation of roughly 27 GWh/day, which allowing a liberal 30% capacity factor means 3375 MW of wind and solar power. The installed base in 2013 was nowhere near this. Other targets have not been met either.

What did we achieve in 2014? It was a groundbreaking year in many ways in that the first REIPPP  projects,  particularly wind and solar, started to deliver energy to the grid, in spite of the predictions by critics and diehard coal consumers. This programme has shown that a generation system financed from private sources, designed, engineered and privately built, can be constructed to deliver within time limits and on budget. Further news is that the projects which have been connected are performing better than expected. However this is not so good for the customers as it means that Eskom has to buy more renewable electricity at a higher price which will inevitably be passed onto the consumer. Hopefully the prediction that in the future renewable energy can be produced at a bid price lower than Eskom’s new build price will materialise.

This is already the case according to a claim from certain sectors, as solar and the occasional wind is reducing the need for Eskom to use its OCGT plant which operates at an exorbitant cost. This is true, but only because the power utility is running its peaking plant in a mid-term mode most of the day as a result of the terrible problems that it has. So the crisis is actually leading to a savings of money.

How long can this situation carry on? The gas turbines at Ankerlig and Coega have a design lifetime of 100 000 equivalent operating hours (EOH)  or 3000 starts. How long before they need to be taken offline for routine maintenance? The 100 000 EOH maintenance could involve an extensive teardown examination and possible rebuild with long unavailability. It was shocking to hear at the Eskom announcement, that generation had been curtailed at some power stations because of environmental requirements. It is a ridiculous situation that in a power crisis, what is really an arbitrary environmental requirement can result in reduced generation.

We now also have data on the performance of the renewable plant on a day to day basis, and are finally able to dispel some of the more persistent myths and dire predictions about performance. For instance the figures show that the wind is really “always blowing somewhere” in this country, but unfortunately not sufficiently to balance the stations where it is not. With real data at hand it is now possible to take a more realistic approach to future energy planning.

2014 saw real growth in the private PV market and some progress towards legal net-metering, although why this is such an obsession with many people is not clear.

On the international front, it was reported that the shut-down of nuclear plants in Belgium meant no Christmas lights or advertising in the streets. Maybe we could follow this example and insist on the shutdown during peak periods of the obnoxious video billboards that have appeared in Johannesburg. It is unfair to expect domestic users to switch off lights while allowing these visual pollutants to carry on guzzling electricity.

So what can we expect for 2015?

The bad news for 2015 is that that the power crisis which precipitated rolling blackouts over the holiday period, will continue, according to Eskom. Hopefully we will see the first power delivered from Medupi sometime this year. The good news is the publication of the RFQ documents for purchase of coal baseload power from IPPs, which means the start of a project which may overtake Medupi unless things change drastically.

The end of 2014 saw an upsurge in activity on the nuclear programme and I would say that it is fairly certain that we are going ahead with this.  From industry reports, it seems that there is a subtle shift in sentiment from many quarters in favour of nuclear as a replacement or alternative to fossil fuel fired generation. In addition, the industry seems to be getting its act on the road, with projects coming in on time and within budget. It also seems that the much feared construction cost of nuclear may be much less than what has been bandied about, and will also be much lower than the cost of providing an equivalent capacity using renewables.

Looking at the future, has anyone studied the sociological consequences of relying totally on renewable energy? Imagine a situation where it is no longer possible to blame the utility for power shortages or blackouts, and with a population which has been conditioned to believe that human actions can and do affect the climate and the weather. Human nature seems to always need someone to blame, and superstition lurks very close to the surface of our collective psych. At the end of 2014 Eskom was blaming the 2010 world cup and the elections for the maintenance backlog, and the country’s president responded by blaming the whole power crisis on the previous political regime. People were burned at the stake in years gone by for allegedly causing floods or droughts, or were sacrificed to the gods to appease them when crops failed. Are we re-entering an age of superstition by moving to power sources over which we have no direct control? This may not sound so far-fetched when you consider that some otherwise intelligent people have suggested that the CEOs of the major oil companies be charged with crimes against humanity. A short step away from their incineration in a solar furnace.

Lets hope that 2105 sees a step towards a brighter and more promising future.

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