South Africa’s weather offers an attractive foundation for producing a significant amount of wind energy, with the Western Cape and Eastern Cape having particularly impressive wind speeds that surpass those of most European countries, says consultancy Mott MacDonald renewable energy consultant Jo Reeves.
Another benefit is that larger wind farms can be built further from residences in South Africa, given that land is available in the country, unlike Europe, where infrastructure is located closer to residences.
Reeves notes there are many advantages to using wind energy for small or rural communities.
She notes that, as part of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Programme application process, applicants are required to demonstrate their social responsibility to communities through economic input.
“This includes setting up a community trust to give local communities a percentage of ownership and, therefore, share in the profits that can be fed back into the area. “There are also local employment benefits during construction and many developers invest in the community in other ways – for example, by providing skills training or scholarships for energy-related qualifications,” she says.
Meanwhile, Reeves points out that people are concerned about the noise and the visual and health impacts of wind farms.
“Many people believe wind turbines will create a constant hum that will have a negative impact on their lives,” she says, adding that wind farms are, however, quiet and cannot usually be heard even from a few hundred metres away.
The visual impact of wind farms is a subjective matter, as some people like the look of wind farms and some do not.
“Ultimately, they are a temporary alteration to the landscape and, when decommissioned, the landscape will return to its former appearance, with no damage to the environment and with a significant boost to the energy supply,” says Reeves.
Further, she notes that many medical studies have been done, showing no evidence to suggest that wind turbines have any detrimental effect on the health of people living near them.
“The reality of a wind farm is generally much more attractive than the perceived threat. Global research has shown that neighbours of operating wind farms are often their biggest advocates and many who opposed wind farms in the planning stage become supporters once they have experienced the reality of coexisting with one,” she highlights.
However, despite the favourable levels of wind and solar energy – solar irradiation levels are impressive by international standards – in South Africa, electricity generation from these sources is dependent on the wind blowing and the sun shining.
“They cannot stand alone to supply all the energy needs of the country and they need to be a part of the energy mix with other renewable sources, such as biomass, hydropower and more traditional energy sources,” says Reeves.
Nevertheless, if wind and solar farms are spread over as many appropriate areas as possible, the contribution towards energy supply will be more continuous, she adds.
“Integrating renewable energy into the existing power system is a challenge and balancing an intermittent electricity supply with another, more continuous supply is a challenge for grid operators. South Africa requires a more sophisticated system to increase security of supply and reduce energy losses,” Reeves concedes.
However, she believes there are solutions to these challenges, such as the use of ‘smart grids’, which enable a two-way flow of power.