What would South Africa look like powered 100% by renewable energy?
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is loath to lend funds to utilities and governments that want to build coal power plants. According to the Chamber of Mines of South Africa, over the next 10 years Eskom will close four power stations. This means cutting 8800MW of installed capacity. The result will be 30,000 direct jobs lost and a further potential loss of 70,000 indirect jobs. These mainly in the transport and storage sectors.
So it’s clear South Africa needs a renewable power solution. Genergy believes that Eskom must be allowed to develop its own renewable energy resources in competition with others whilst operating in the same field. If the government wants to subsidise renewable energy, Eskom should get the same advantage.
If Eskom was allowed to develop its own renewable energy resources and more private organisations invested in the renewable power generation: what would South Africa look like powered 100% by renewable energy?
Big on wind and solar
In the future, the bulk of our electricity would come from the most affordable technologies: wind and solar photovoltaic (PV). In areas with the best renewable resources, big wind and solar projects connected to transmission lines will generate electricity. This will power South Africa’s industry, transport, cities and exports.
Modelling by Genergy suggests that solar and wind generation can supply up to 90% of South Africa’s electricity needs. The remaining 10% would be generated by smaller and more experimental renewable energy sources as technological developments allow. South Africa’s best solar irradiance is in the country’s Northen Cape. The coastal regions have the highest wind potential. These renewable energy zones already have some investment in transmission and distribution. However further investment is required to harvest these amazing resources.
Many renewable technologies in many locations
South Africa is a vast country. Solar and wind farms would be spread across the country, sharing their output. In the rainbow nation, the sun always shines or the wind always blows somewhere.
The supply gaps will then be filled with a range of on-demand renewables and storage. For example; concentrating solar thermal with storage, pumped hydro, batteries (grid and domestic), sustainable bioenergy and more.
Small, so everyone can benefit
At Genergy we believe that a majority of the country’s future energy generation will be local. In other words, customer-owned in homes, businesses and communities. This means solar panels on every sunny roof, and batteries in households and commercial buildings. In apartment blocks, there will be microgrids powered by solar pannels and batteries. Renters will join community solar projects and landlords will be required to make properties more energy efficient. When you go to the shopping centre and plug in your electric car, it will be shaded by solar panels.
Demand is as important as supply
Future electricity use will be much more dynamic. When the sun is shining or a gale is blowing, smart software will send a signal to energy users to turn on their pumps and fill up their batteries.
When wind generation is low, batteries will be signalled to turn on. This is called demand response. It can deliver reliable grid electricity and lower energy bills. A win-win situation.
We will also need to use energy much more efficiently, and more than double productivity. Our houses, buildings, equipment, appliances, transport and industrial processes all need to become more efficient.
Poles and wires, we’ll build them only when we need them
Our electricity grid will continue to act as an essential service. However, households and businesses will be incentivised to use the local grid infrastructure through revised tariffs and peer-to-peer energy trading.
While households will draw less electricity from the grid than they do now (thanks to energy efficiency or rooftop solar), the demand for electricity overall will increase. This as a result of powering up domestic transport and industrial processes, ensuring that the grid we need is affordable for all.
In places where it’s cost effective, edge of grid communities will be slowly taken off the grid. As the poles and wires become too expensive to maintain for a handful of users, these communities will be powered by renewable microgrids and storage.
Industry and transport go renewable too
As our grid gets cleaner, it makes sense to take the pollution out of our transport and industrial sectors.
Transforming our transport sector to make it powered by 100% renewable energy will also require mode-shifting to greater public and active transport. In future, heavy transport, such as garbage trucks, are likely to be powered by renewable hydrogen.
In the industrial sector, we will see the rise of renewable industry centres. There heat-intensive industries can access renewable heat from bioenergy, concentrating solar thermal and renewable hydrogen production. These spaces will also be the key locations for South Africa’s renewable export industries which support countries in the rest of Africa as well as Asia.
Renewable resilient to extreme weather
While doing our part in cutting pollution helps avert the worst aspects of climate change, we cannot avoid the warming that has already happened. As a result our future electricity system will have to cope with more extreme weather events.
If urban and rural areas become ‘islands’ and disconnected from the national grid, areas need sufficient capacity to power themselves as standalone grids for at least six to 12 hours. This creates a more resilient and reliable electricity system. The Danish electricity system operator already does this to better manage its system.
Such a transition has engineering and policy challenges that need to be addressed. With our smartest minds dedicated to the cause, creating an energy system of the future is already under way. The biggest question that remains is this: will we do it at the speed that climate change demands?
 According to William Clowes and Paul Burkhardt, Bloomberg News.