Renewable energy: changing attitudes and changing lives

July 4th, 2016, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: Energize


About two-hours’ drive along the meandering N2 towards Caledon, passers-by are greeted by nine gigantic 3 MW wind turbines perched on the rolling green hills of the scenic Cape Overberg region, and are indicative of the changing attitudes towards renewable energy.

Pierre Potgieter, assistant editor at EE Publishers, is on a week-long tour of South Africa, sponsored by the US Embassy, seeking out various innovative renewable energy projects. The articles below form a diary of his travels.

Day 4: Thursday 30 June

Click here for Pierre’s report on day 1

Click here for Pierre’s report on day 2

Click here for Pierre’s report on day 3

Changing attitudes

Fellow journalist Tom Yullsman at the base of one of the wind turbine towers.

Journalist Tom Yullsman at the base of one of the wind turbine towers.

Suitably called the Dassiesklip Wind Facility, with the turbines seemingly randomly perched on highpoints, the turbines co-exist on an operational farm where the entrepreneurial farmer farms with sheep and grains, and also makes bricks.

One of BioTherm Energy’s eight renewable projects, three of them in wind energy, this project bears testament to the changing attitudes to wind generation, which not long ago was considered an eyesore. So much has the attitude towards wind generation changed, that the developer and operator will soon construct the Excelsior Wind Facility with 13 turbines near the just-as-pristine Swellendam.

The Dassiesklip project did not come without challenges though. Foremost of these was the upfront environmental impact assessment, specifically on the bird and bat life of the area. The two-year environmental study saw the developer employ researchers from the University of Cape Town (UCT) with specially-designed devices to collect difficult to obtain data on bat movements and patterns. The devices use bats’ echolocation (ultrasonic sounds emitted to produce echoes) to determine their species, movements and patterns.

Furthermore, the project also trained dogs to find and return birds and bats from the field for constant monitoring of bird and bat strikes. Then there is also the wind turbulence from the surrounding hills along with spatial constraints (rather than the usual grid constrains), which meant very careful planning of wind turbine placements.

The construction process too was a learning process in many ways, said the company’s Operations and Construction Director Gerald Francis. The logistics of transporting unusually large, multi-ton components meant using the Saldanha Bay Harbour as point of entry, as there is not enough space for trucks to turn with such large loads when leaving from the Cape Town harbour. Driving restrictions and the slow speed of transport further meant meticulous planning was essential.

On the construction site, wind played a paradoxically influencing role the construction process, as lifting these heavy component could only take place under low-wind-speed conditions for safety reasons. To connect the turbines, BioTherm Energy decided to use underground wiring, which although more expensive, is cosmetically more pleasing.

Today, already two years operational, this 26,9 MW facility generates 88 GWh annually at a capacity factor of 36,5%, and feeds it into the grid through a loop-in-loop-out system.

Changing lives

Renewable energy generation and development is a business first and foremost, and although the REIPPP Programme dictates a socio-economic development component to projects, it is but a small focus of most developers’ operations. It is therefore refreshing to see creative and considered development programmes such as BioTherm Energy’s multi-pronged approach with its core focus on education. Although structural development programmes have their place and influence, projects that develop persons takes a long-term focus that is self-sustaining and progressive.

Operations and Construction Director Gerald Francis takes a wind speed reading.

Operations and Construction Director Gerald Francis takes a wind speed reading.

The renewables developer has several such education projects in its surrounding area.

In one of them the company partnered with the Meta Economic Development Organisation (MEDO), which runs a Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) programme. Through workshops and boot camps the organisation involves female high school students to build a privately-owned satellite for which the pupils build and test the payloads. Components for the satellites, which don’t require soldering, were developed by Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) students.

BioTherm Energy further supports the development of a multi-stream curriculum education model at L.R. Schmidt Primary School in Genadendal, among others. This model follows one envisioned by the Department of Basic Education to develop students not only academically but also for practical careers. It realises and helps develop individuals who might not fit a purely academic career, and would otherwise leave the school system without other career options.

Then there is the mentoring programme that the renewable developer supports through the Botriver Education Foundation. This programme identifies students with academic potential, and mentor and help them get into university, including financial assistance. Mentoring is not only for students, because the renewable company also supports a mentoring programme for school principals in the Overberg region through the Principals’ Academy, to assist them as they lead the school.

The importance of education is hard to overstress in an economy with high unemployment and low-skilled work, often only short term, so that programmes like the above stand out from many others.

BioTherm Energy is a South African company that is fully-owned by Denham Capital, a US-based global private equity fund. Most of its projects are still in South Africa, though it has started with development in the rest of the continent. It has worked with Power Africa, situated within USAID, to negotiated deals in the rest of the continent.

Click here for Pierre’s report on day 1

Click here for Pierre’s report on day 2

Click here for Pierre’s report on day 3

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