About a year ago, there were news reports that Irish company Mainstream Renewable Power was partnering with local company Genesis Eco-Energy to construct 18 wind-energy farms in South Africa by 2014.
The reports said that the wind farms would be "adding 500 MW of electricity to the national grid".
Now I read that the CEO of Mainstream Renewable Energy, Eddie O'Connor, has written in a blog that wind energy is the cheapest generating option for South Africa at present. This is plain and simply not true.
The report goes on to say that O'Connor was responding to past comments by Eskom's chief of generation, Brian Dames, that renewable energy was costly and would have to be backed up by either coal or nuclear. Dames is quite correct. O'Connor then questioned whether Dames had taken into account the price risks of coal-fired power.
This comment by O'Connor was patronising. South African energy planners are very good at their jobs. Our engineers rank among the best in the world. Surely, a major group of energy planning scientists and engineers, as well as associated economists and the rest of the team, would not forget to take price changes into account.
This renewable issue comes up time and again, so let us get a few points straight. The first is that I am in favour of wind energy but only where it is genuinely economically viable and practical.
So, please, no more insulting phone calls behind my back to radio and TV producers and newspaper editors telling them that I am a covert crook, secretly funded to manipulate society towards destruction.
Let us be clear about installed generating capacity, and then how much energy that installed capacity actually delivers. It is never 100%.
In the case of wind energy, you only get power out when the wind blows. It continues to amaze me that no newspapers ever mention this fact.
In the case of wind power generators, this turns out to be about 20% of the total capacity installed, if you are very lucky. Frequently, it is closer to 10%. Also, since the wind is a major variable, no matter how good a wind area you are operating in, one would have to plan for a figure closer to 10% than to 20%.
Even more dramatic is that there are times when the output from wind energy farms can be zero, entirely due to the nature of the weather. No wind, no power. So you would not connect a hospital's intensive-care unit to a wind-energy generator as its only source of power.
A month ago, the Minister of Energy, Dipuo Peters, restricted the choice of fuel for South Africa's next baseload power plant to coal or nuclear. Coal and nuclear, as fuel, do not depend on the weather – they are continuously available. So, if one builds a nuclear power station, for example, the electricity generated is available about 95% of the time, or more. The other 5% is for scheduled shutdowns for maintenance and refuelling.
Yes, there are occasions when a nuclear or coal plant can go offline 100%, but such occasions are extremely rare. South Africa also has a very good record in this respect.
What also surprised me about O'Connors remarks was that, a year ago, it was stated in the press that the company's projects would require a feed-in tariff of about R1/kWh. Remember, ‘feed-in tariff' is the fancy term for ‘subsidy.' So they were saying that they could not build the 500-MW installed-capacity wind farm unless they were heavily subsidised by the taxpayer. I am totally opposed to feed-in tariffs. There should be none.
If wind energy is profitable, then show that it is – do not twist the economics with feed-in tariffs. It is possible to use donkey-cart transport to compete with the railways, if the donkey cart ‘feed-in tariff' were high enough.
Wind energy has its place, as a bonus add-on to a steady baseload supply, to my mind not on to the national grid but rather at a more ‘distributed' level such as added to a factory or a harbour. Other options are to use wind power for specific standalone applications where the intermittent nature of the supply can be accommodated.