Gold in the Sky

Johannesburg, the scene of the 29th bi-annual ISES (International Solar Energy Society) Solar World Congress held from 11th-14th October 2009, is the only major international city that is not founded on a coast or that does not have a river running through it. It sits out in the middle of the high veld in South Africa, its location entirely based on the gold discovered under the earth.

The massive spoil heaps dotted around the city from mainly disused mines, and the ownership of the largest buildings in the city centre, are signs of the historic and continuing importance of mining to the economy. They are also very visible evidence of the way the availability of natural resources can shape a city and its financial systems.

“We need to learn to harness the gold in the sky, not just dig it from under the ground” were the evocative words of conference Chair John Adams at the opening session, alluding to a fairly constant theme of the conference; why does the continent with the best solar resource in the world make least use of it? What needs to be done to make its use more widespread?

Many of the global energy issues are present in the small country of South Africa; it has a predominantly fossil-fuel powered electricity system, with many of its wealthier citizens enjoying high energy-consumption lifestyles while millions of others have little or no access to any form of electricity. The issue of power is intensely political; demand has been growing fast, resulting in load-shedding and vociferous complaints from many customers.

Both industry and those without power at all are clamoring for more. At the same time, the massive CO2 emissions from its largely coal-fired generation put the country under the spotlight. As Richard Worthington from the local branch of WWF pointed out in one of his presentations, one new coal-fired power station in South Africa would emit more CO2 annually than the combined emissions of the twenty, lowest-emitting African countries.

Electricity in South Africa means Eskom, the incumbent utility (and generous lead sponsor for the Solar World Congress), responsible for both generation and distribution. It owns over 40 GW of generating capacity, making it on its own reckoning one of the top 10 utilities in the world.

It faces intense pressure from many different directions; on the final day of the Congress, the national press were full of Eskom’s application to the National Energy Regulator of South Africa to raise the price of electricity to consumers by 45% a year for the next three years, taking it from its current level of 33 c kWh (about 4.5 cents US) to 99 c kWh (about 13.5 cents US). Eskom sees this as necessary to fund a capacity expansion program, but even rises on this scale will leave it 30 billion Rand short of the capital it is forecasted to need.

South Africa is home to some very energy-intensive industry. Remarkably, over 65% of the energy it generates is used in industry, and this is reflected in its customer base. Barry MacColl from Eskom observed that the top 135 customers account for 40% of total energy consumption; the largest 80,000 account for 75% of demand and the remaining 8 million use the final 25%. The larger customers, all industrial concerns, will not be affected by the rate rises, as they negotiate their own contracts.

The planned Eskom rate rises do include an allowance for some CSP (concentrating solar power), and a lively discussion forum at the Congress agreed that the potential for this was significant. There was concern that the competing technologies might not all get a fair chance and many of the commentators from the floor argued against Eskom being in a position where it tried to pick a technology winner.

There was also recognition both that CSP could provide significant numbers of local jobs (it was claimed 80% of the costs needed to be based in South African Rand to protect against currency fluctuations) and that there was scope — as David Jarrett from NamPower, the Namibian utility, agreed — for significant regional development and initiatives. For MacColl again, another key issue will be to diversify the supply; if carbon taxes arrive (another issue under discussion) Eskom would be hit hard, with a tax of 200 Rand (US $27.40) per tonne of CO2 effectively wiping out Eskom’s turnover.

South Africa is also finalizing its feed-in tariff, and many of the speakers in other sessions believe that this could prove to be a very important catalyst to the development not only of CSP, but more widespread uptake of PV, and some significant utility-scale wind development. Again, Eskom’s role could be crucial as the company serves as network operator and distributor, and often arbiter of what can and can’t happen. Many are arguing for a greater role for Independent Power Producers, and this is high on the political energy agenda.

For some of the householders visiting the exhibition, the simple answer to ‘what brings you to a solar event?’ was ‘Eskom’. There was a lot of interest in solar water heating – not surprisingly perhaps given that electrical water heating accounts for over 43% of domestic electricity consumption.

There is plenty of awareness of the bigger picture. Much of the discussion at the Congress looked forward to the COP 15 meeting in Denmark at the end of this year. The conference approved a text to send to delegates at the COP meeting, which stressed that ‘rapid transition to a renewable energy world is the key to climate recovery’.

The COP 15 text reaffirmed ISES’s willingness to work with partner organizations, including the newly formed International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), whose interim Director General Hélène Pelosse spoke via video at the opening ceremony. She reminded delegates of the need to reduce the barriers to wider deployment of renewable energy by addressing the expertise gap, the human capital gap and the financing gap.

5000 MW of Solar for South Africa

There was also a welcome for the announcement the day before the Congress opened of the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Clinton Climate Initiative and the South African Ministry of Energy for support to examine the establishment of a 5000-MW Solar Park. A feasibility study is being commissioned, and the Ministry explicitly expects this to include ‘significant solar generation by different Independent Power Producers’.

One of several impassioned speakers was Harry Lehmann from the Federal Environment Agency of Germany. He stressed the need for the goal of 100% renewable energy. As he pointed out, nobody doubts that we will need to achieve this in a few decades, so why, he asked, are we considering such side roads as nuclear power and clean coal, when we can head straight to the necessary target. This theme was also then picked up in the final congress resolution which stated firmly that ‘the global target of 100 % renewable energies is both attainable and necessary by the middle of the current century’ while also noting that ‘the unacceptable backlog in energy supply in the third world countries can only be covered cost effectively and in time by the use of renewable energies’.

Maybe the gold from the sky can be harnessed after all.

Edward Milford is currently the Chairman of Earthscan, and a former publisher of Renewable Energy World magazine.

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