Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Robben Island power plan hits major politics snag.

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SPOOKED by the power blackouts of 2008, South Africa has become firmly focused on ensuring it has
pre-defined levels of baseload power even as useful alternative options slip the attention of decision-makers.

A case in point is the small-scale production of renewable and alternative energy – projects that individually will generate less than 1megawatt of electricity and therefore do not yet qualify to receive
a renewable energy feed-in tariff.

The SA National Energy Research Institute (Saneri), a division of the state-owned Central Energy Fund, has developed economic models for distributed small-scale renewable energy hybrids, which are ideal for village settings.

It found the hybrids could produce three times more energy than a new-generation coal-fired station and five times more jobs at one-third of the cost over the next 20 years, provided renewables are exploited to the correct potential, says Saneri’s Working For Energy head Derek Butte, who acknowledges that a lot of “glaring assumptions” had to be made in the research.

The exact mix of these hybrids depends on local conditions, and includes concepts such as clearing alien invasive vegetation for biomass.

Robben Island’s greening project is Saneri’s first pilot project of 10 that are planned to demonstrate the hybrid approach. It will generate about 600 kilowatts of power from solar, wind and biogas, commissioning
each in stages to replace existing expensive diesel generators. Wave power is a future option.

However, the Robben Island greening project has attracted some controversy in recent weeks, becoming entangled in a web of disorganisation amid management changes at the Robben Island Museum.

The greening project has now been put on hold by museum chairwoman Thandi Modise – but not before Saneri put out a tender for a 400kW concentrated solar photovoltaic power plant.

The story as Butte tells it is that Saneri was approached by a former Robben Island Museum chief executive in 2008 to initiate an energy project, both because of high diesel costs and the hassle of getting the product in by boat.

He says contractual arrangements for the project exist with Robben Island authorities – both with the Department of Public Works and a memorandum of understanding with the museum, which was signed to “put something down” as chief executives were changing so quickly.

Butte says the misunderstanding had created “a lot of harm” within the energy community.

Alwyn Smith, the administrator of the Southern African Alternative Energy Association, is concerned some of his members may have wasted their nonrefundable R3 000 deposit by tendering to supply 400kW of concentrated solar photovoltaic power for the project.

However, Butte is confident the tender will go ahead and hopes the technology will be installed by the end of March. He says Saneri will meet the new Robben Island managers to “put to bed misperceptions”.

It will be a great pity if there is a delay in the roll-out of small-scale hybrids, or cancellation of the country’s first government- backed project to demonstrate the potential of small-scale renewable energy hybrids.

For all his concerns, even Smith says it’s a “good project” that for whatever reason ran into political headwinds.

This should probably serve as a reminder to cater for a degree of municipal chaos when the project – hopefully – rolls out across South Africa.

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