The future of electrical energy is playing out in South Africa, where 80% of all electricity is generated by burning coal. The government is anxious to shutter all those coal fired plants but is caught in a crossfire between advocates for nuclear power and those who favor renewable solutions like solar and wind energy.
South Africa is the most advanced economy in sub-Saharan Africa. Until 2008, its electrical power came from coal fired generating stations and one nuclear power plant. Starting in 2008, the country ran short of electricity due to poor infrastructure planning, That’s when crippling rolling blackouts began. Desperate for more electrical capacity, the government started a campaign to lure investment in wind and solar power. By June of this year, 102 renewable energy projects worth $14.4 billion had been completed.
Renewable Strategy Successful
“The program has been very successful, clear of any corruption and very well run,” said Wikus van Niekerk, the director of the Center for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies at Stellenbosch University. “It’s been seen by many people in the rest of the world as one of the most successful procurement programs for renewable energy. It’s something that the South African government and public should be proud about.”
Several of those projects are concentrated solar facilities located near Upington in the central part of the country. That area has some of the most abundant daily sunshine of any place on earth. But those facilities use technology that is now almost obsolete. They use mirrors to concentrate sunlight to boil water to make steam.
After the sun goes down, they can continue to make electricity from the steam on hand for a few hours. After that, they have to wait for the sun to reappear the next day. Newer concentrated solar plants use the sun’s rays to heat molten salt, which can be kept in storage for up to 10 hours after the sun sets and used to keep the steam turbines spinning. Researchers in Spain say using molten silicon can store up to ten times as much energy as molten salt.
What About Nuclear?
That intermittent nature of renewable energy has left the door open for another option — nuclear power. The country’s primary utility company, Eksom, strongly favors building massive new nuclear facilities. At 7 p.m., when demand peaks, “the wind may not be moving, and the sun has set,” said Brian Molefe, Eskom’s chief executive. He added that further expansion of renewable energy should “go slow” until cheap and efficient storage technology for renewables is developed.
In fact, the technology for storing electricity is improving at a furious pace right now. In the past few weeks, Tesla has announced that it has doubled the energy storage capacity of its grid scale storage batteries in just one year since they were first introduced. That prompts critics of nuclear power to ask, why invest billions in nuclear facilities now? Nukes have a useful life of 60 years or more. Going the nuclear route would delay the advent of zero emissions power by decades.
Is Baseload Power An Outmoded Concept?
“The concept of baseload is actually an outdated concept,” said Harald Winkler, the director of the Energy Research Center at the University of Cape Town. “Eskom was built around big coal and to a lesser extent big nuclear — big chunks of base load power. It’s really myopic in terms of where the future of the grid is going to go. We’re going to see in South Africa and the rest of the world much more decentralized grids.”
Distributed Vs. Centralized Power
Ahhh, there is in a nutshell. The same fears that drive established utility companies in the United States. Europe, and Australia apply in South Africa. Utility companies think in terms of centralized grids. Renewables coupled with efficient, cost effective energy storage make grids virtually obsolete. Utility companies are petrified they may become irrelevant and the trillions of dollars invested in building grids throughout the world will stop producing income.
Businesses in South African cities are increasingly installing solar panels and going off the grid. Elsewhere in Africa, it is now common to see villagers connecting cellphones to single solar panels outside mud brick homes.
Opposition to South Africa’s nuclear plans is also coming from the government’s main research agency, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. It says an expansion of solar and wind energy, in addition to natural gas, could meet South Africa’s future energy needs for less money. “No new coal, no new nuclear,” said Tobias BischofNiemz, who leads the
council’s research on energy. “South Africa is in a very fortunate situation where we can decarbonize our energy system at negative cost.”
Other Countries Are Watching
How South Africa decides to move forward could impact other African countries that are trying to provide electrical power to their citizens and lower their carbon footprint in accordance with pledges made at the COP21 global conference on climate change in Paris last December.
Many of them want to leapfrog over older and dirtier sources of energy like coal and oil. Renewable energy could also bring diversification to nations that are dangerously dependent on a single source of electricity. Both Malawi and Zambia have experienced crippling blackouts because severe droughts related to climate change have lowered water levels. That in turn has led to less availability of hydroelectric power.
Nuclear power relies completely on a centralized grid. Building grid infrastructure — transmission lines and substations — costs as much or more as a building generating facilities themselves. That’s why localized renewable power provides the most amount of electricity per dollar invested.
Source: New York Times Photo Credit: Quora
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before people spend their hard-earned money, you should inform them that when sun is not shinning, it is coal or natural gas/fracking that is to keep the lights on, because batteries/energy storage is prohibitively expensive.
“Going the nuclear route would delay the advent of zero emissions power by decades.”
Absolute bullshit. Nuclear energy IS zero emissions power. Say what you really intend to say: “Going the nuclear route would delay the advent of renewable energy by decades.”
Brings the real question in: what’s so big about renewable energy? Why must we go 100% renewables? Isn’t our target net carbon neutrality? Wouldn’t any method that contributes to it (including CCS, efficiency, carbon neutral fuels) be considered? Why only renewables?
Nuclear uses a lot of water, and has nuclear waste, which last for 100,000 years. Even France is getting rid of their nuclear power plants. It’s much easier to decentralize solar which is quickly dropping in price, and put it on homes, businesses, and build solar micro grids all over the country. India is doing this. One centralized nuclear power plant also requires thousands of miles of ugly transmission wires crisscrossing the landscape. Then theirs the nuclear waste, which no country, can safely store for the next 100,000 years. Add the expense, and solar and wind beat nuclear hands down. Batteries can store the power for times when the sun doesn’t shine, or the wind isn’t blowing.
“Add the expense, and solar and wind beat nuclear hands down. Batteries can store the power for times when the sun doesn’t shine, or the wind isn’t blowing.”
“Batteries Necessary To Support Solar and Wind Power Don’t Exist”
Really, then why did Tesla just successfully complete a complete solar microgrid, that powers an entire island with solar in American Samoa, with advanced battery storage, capable of storing power for 3 days, without any sun. We have the technology now to store power from wind and solar power, so natural gas, dirty coal, and expensive nuclear with it’s waste issues, is no longer needed.
Strong demand for lithium will skyrocket prices and mining pollution.
Lithium batteries are toxic and polluting.
“Mining lithium for batteries is no greener than mining copper”
What is the most efficient and clean (non carbon based) best way to generate electricity to power cars? Or are all options the same?
Renewable sources require even more grid infrastructure than coal or nuclear. Where did you get your facts? How many businesses that have installed solar are 100% off-grid as you claim? Less than 1%, most likely. You said nuclear would delay zero carbon energy but I’d say it is comparable to wind or solar. Possibly it is even less carbon considering building a combo of wind and solar to provide the same power after capacity consideractions can take up to 50-90 times the concrete, steel and copper to build compared to nuclear power… or coal ot natural gas. I’d love to live in your world but I must instead live in the real one.
Completely untrue. Wind and solar only require upfront raw materials, and then the power is free, unlike dirty coal or natural gas which require a constant amount of fuel.
are batteries included? or is it necessary dirty coal or natural gas when sun is not shinning or wind is not blowing?
Tesla just completed a complete solar microgrid on an island in American Samoa, with advanced battery storage, capable of providing power to the entire island for 3 days, without sunshine, so dirty coal or natural gas is not needed, for backup power.
Mining lithium for batteries is as dirty as coal and gas/fracking.
“Protests against mining of lithium by the Lichu River in Kangding, Tibet”
“the hope of running the world on 100% renewables is a pipe dream. Storage needed for periods when the wind and sun aren’t available is not practical for long periods.”
South Africa has beautiful landscapes, please don’t let ecologically hypocritical means of energy production(renewables) ruin natural landscapes and disrupt wildlife’s habitats. Nature, birds and bats, will thank us.
Totally should choke them with coal fumes instead.
carbon-free nuclear power instead.
it causes fewer fatalities and less ecological impacts per gigawatt produced than renewables
Nuclear is expensive, uses a lot of water, and has waste which must be stored for the next 100,000 years. Solar and wind are much cheaper, and Tesla has advanced battery storage capabilities, so dirty coal or natural gas isn’t needed as a backup.
Uranium is a million times more energy dense than lithium batteries, thereby nuclear power requires less mining than renewables.
Manufacture of wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries, is a dirty process that require intensive and nasty mining activities and in all its stages it is needed fossil fuels.
According to Greenpeace: solar is not clean.
“Although solar is seen as clean energy in terms of carbon emissions, the production of many components is energy intensive and polluting. Toxic discharges from the factory killed large numbers of fish…”
If they decentralize solar and put it on homes, and businesses, then they don’t need to destroy the landscape.