Living on the edge

August 30th, 2012, Published in Articles: Energize

by Mike Rycroft, editor

Eskom has managed to pull us through the winter peak without a single unplanned blackout. Well done. But we are still running close to the edge, and failure of any energy sources could put us in the pit. This was achieved at a cost of shutdowns in industry, power by-backs etc., as well as as well documented impact on economic growth in the country. So we are still in crisis mode, and unless action is taken soon we will remain there for along time to come.

Mike Rycroft, editor

We have Medupi and Kusile in the pipeline and the emerging renewable market, plus a substantial interest in own generation, but the new build program does not stop there. If growth is to continue then demand for power must be met. Eskom management is already showing nervousness about the lack of direction for the future, and has stated publicly that a decision on the post Kusile new build program needs to be taken urgently. Large centralised power systems have, as well stated by an industry member ” a long gestation period”, and future projects need to be conceived fairly soon if we are to not to perpetuate the crisis mode. Let’s be practical:- in spite of predictions and forecasts of a high penetration of small distributed plant, we, and most other countries, will be relying on centralised power for a good portion of the generation mix in future, and will continue to build big power stations. Part of the problem however is that the game changes more rapidly than plant can be built, and changes can influence decisions on what technology to go for.

A good example is natural gas, which is becoming a rapid game changer in the power generation business. The suggestion has been made that it could supplant nuclear in the proposed generation mix. This sounds attractive from a modularity point of view and a provides a nice fit with renewables, except for one catch – we don’t have a gas distribution infrastructure. There are of course the gas discoveries off the east coast, and stranded gas fields off the west coast, and the potential of shale gas from the Karoo, but there is no way to get the gas to the areas where power would be generated. Assuming of course that we follow the principle of distributed generation and place the power stations close to the load centres. It may well to argued that gas is easier to transport than coal, and that once the gas transport infrastructure is in place there will be many other users of gas than the power generation industry. But the decision needs to be made soon.

The new edge, however, is renewable generation. Things are fine as long as conventional generation is there to balance the output at small levels of penetration, but what happens when the balance changes and we move closer to the edge? We missed an opportunity when changing from REFIT, which was technology focused, to a REIPP bidding process, by retaining the technology centeredness.

After all, what are we trying to achieve with the REIPP program? – Is it not the introduction of renewable energy into the generation mix, and not specific technologies? When the change was made from a fixed tariff to a bidding process, the opportunity was there to drop the technology-prescriptive nature of the project and replace it with a power or energy delivery prescriptive component, i.e. prescribe how much power/energy was required, at what part of the network and at what time of day/year, and let the industry sort itself out.

Removing the technology prescriptive feature would also allow innovative and hybrid options to compete. The current technology prescriptive nature of the REIPPP is very restrictive on development and innovation, and in fact confines the industry to repeating what has been done previously in other countries. As a green fields project, we have the opportunity to leapfrog the development process and start out with leading edge concepts, and also avoid the danger of technology dumping.

One of the main hurdles that renewable energy has to overcome is the need to be able to deliver power in a way which matches demand. The current approach followed to achieve this is to add storage, and there are numerous projects around the world working on this idea. Surely it makes sense for us enter the market at the leading edge, where these developments are, and not at the back of the pack? Eskom for instance is building a 100 MW wind farm – what are they going to learn from that? Would it not be better to put together a hybrid power hub that would use wind as a primary source and deliver power on demand, instead of just replicating what has been done over and over again?

This could also send a message to industry, which seems to have lost direction – The challenge is not to produce bigger and bigger wind turbines, or more efficient photovoltaic panels, but to produce wind farms and other renewable energy hubs that can deliver power and energy to match the demand on the grid. If this challenge is not met, then renewable energy generation is going to hit a wall somewhere in the future, and over-reliance on it may push us over the edge.

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