Addicted to Big Energy

Eskom is preventing a shift towards renewable energy.

South Africa is very “lucky” to have some of the cheapest electrical power in the world. I put the lucky in parentheses because this luck is a double-edged sword. We pay far less for our power than consumers in most other nations yet our electricity is some of the dirtiest in the world and our per capita greenhouse gas emissions rank amongst the highest in the world. Most of our power is produced by ageing coal-fired power stations with little ability to clean their emissions.

We import a small proportion of supposedly sustainable energy from Mozambique, where hydro-electricity from Cahora-Bassa arrives at the original contract price of less than 5 cents per kilowatt, which South Africa has refused to re-negotiate under the new dispensation. Eskom then sell it back to Mozambique at an outrageous mark-up!

We also run the only nuclear power station in Africa at Koeberg,which remains deeply controversial and unpopular. And the future of our power supply? Are we going to reduce emissions, increase energy efficiency and produce sustainable energy?

No, as was shown in the last issue of Biophile, our electricity monopoly, Eskom, instead insists – against powerful popular opinion – that it will continue to go ahead and build an experimental nuclear power station on the doorstep of the most beautiful city in the world!

The idiotic arrogance is staggering. Eskom has to give total priority to profit while supporting the government’s stance that cost of energy must be kept at artificially low levels to attract investment.

Eskom’s token renewables programme is little more than an exercise in greenwash. Our cheap power is frankly, illusory.
The effects on global warming are anything but cheap; this we know. Nations like Micronesia and Bangladesh are threatened by rising sea levels and the North Pole is melting. The social and medical costs of burning coal to produce power are linked to cancer and respiratory problems in humans.

Coal stations also have direct influence on mercury poisoning of our food sources, particularly oceanic fish that consume the mercury emitted by power stations and which is taken up through the food chain. Many large oceanic fish are no longer safe to eat for this reason.

How do we steer the elephant that is Eskom towards sustainable energy? They did splash out, under ministerial directive, on the three relatively small wind turbines as a showpiece for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Jo’burg in 2002.
Yay! Yet their siting is poor and the whole project bears all the appearances of an attempt to prove that wind energy is unsustainable and uneconomic, compared to ‘conventional’ energy sources.

Besides wind, South Africa is blessed with really good sunlight availability for solar power. This is presently harnessed through two main methods; through heating, mainly of water, and through the conversion of sunlight to electrical energy.

Hot water solar panels are a mature and well-established method of harnessing solar energy. They can cut domestic energy costs by over 60%, according to Spanish research, which has led to Spain declaring that it is mandatory to fit solar panels to all new houses. Israel has had a similar policy for decades. Even some German states have recently mandated similar policies.
Germany! For goodness sake it lies at an average of more than 50 degrees north, while South Africa is almost tropical! Just what is going on here?

As we saw in the Earthlife analysis printed in the previous issue, if we invested a similar amount in hot water solar panels as has been invested in the experimental Pebble Bed Reactor (PBR), we would produce 8.5 times more jobs in both the short and long term, and more relevantly, 51 times more energy. All of this using tested and safe technology with no inherent risks, no emissions, no nuclear waste and no hidden costs, that projects like the PBR carry.

But it is clearly not in the interests of Eskom to do itself out of over 50% of its domestic consumption market. This reality not only discourages the use of solar panels, but also, through its regulatory and government influence Eskom undermines any meaningful attempts at subsidisation or encouragement of these alternatives as happens widely elsewhere.

Even in the USA, the highest energy consumption nation on earth gives subsidies of up to 85% on new domestic solar installations. Here there is none, zip, nada, niks. You pay for your environmental integrity.Coupled to this is the government policy of cost recovery in providing services, part of its neo-liberal economic model. Even though millions of people have gained connections to the grid since 1994, millions more have fallen victim to disconnection as they simply cannot afford the energy costs, which can run to above 30% of household income.

If solar hot water was provided, that amount could be halved. The potential for job creation in the manufacture, installation and supply of solar systems is substantial. Yet again the hidden hand of our electricity monopoly works against this taking place with the potential loss of significant income.

One example of the possibilities is in household energy reduction is Kuyasa, a pilot project in Khayelitsha, where 10 homes have been fitted with ceilings, solar panels and other active and passive energy saving devices. This project has shown clearly the advantages of using alternative energy while at the same time reducing energy needs by improving insulation and using compact fluorescent bulbs. This project saved over three and a half tonnes of CO2 emissions, per household, per year and reduced household energy needs by up to 80%. Interestingly the gains by properly insulating houses were slightly more than those from installing a solar system. Even so, solar panels were shown to save over eleven hundred tonnes of CO2 per annum.

Another really exciting development is the work of Prof. Vivian Alberts at the University of Johannesburg in developing thin film PV (photoelectric) panels. Normal solar electric panels use a lot of polluting materials and hence are expensive to produce.
Prof. Alberts has developed a process to manufacture thin film panels that reduce the cost of this solar power by more than two thirds! Whereas conventional silicone solar units take almost 10 years to recover costs and CO2 emissions used in their manufacture, these new panels take less than two years and when they do wear out – as all solar panels do – they are completely recyclable, unlike conventional panels.

There are lots of other solutions waiting in the wings that I will touch on in future issues. South Africans are coming up with their normal brilliant, innovative ideas that have always placed this country amongst the forefront of global innovation.

We can continue to lead this innovation, particularly in energy generation. But not with massive coal fired power plants and experimental nuclear reactors. Instead the behemoth that is Eskom strangles innovation, makes it almost impossible to put power back into the grid, and then pays a ridiculously low amount for this power. It generates a business environment that is antithetical to sustainable energy development.
Imagine if there were hidden energy absorbing reefs along our coasts, one of the most energetic in the world.

Imagine all industrial areas with compulsory wind and sun energy, passive and active. Imagine all homes with solar heated water. Imagine the world we could have… without Eskom blundering over the good intentions of people aimed at advancing this nation to lead the world.

This is the world that we can and must create if we are to make a future for our children that is worth living in.
Kick your addiction to big energy and lets all give a hand. Remember, many hands make light work!