South Africa Sluggish on Wind Power

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In many parts of the world, the winds of change may be blowing towards renewables, but don’t expect the South African government to participate.

That’s the assessment of Herman Oelsner, president of the African Wind Energy Association. Standing in front of four wind turbines in Darling in the Western Cape province, Oelsner told our group of bloggers that private industry and regional governments would have to lead the way. He explained that South Africa is rich in coal, and that the federal government owns Eskom, which provides 90 percent of the energy to the country. Because coal is cheap and abundant and the mining industry provides a lot of jobs, the country has little incentive to change. "The utility (Eskom) is against renewables, and that’s why we don’t have any in this country," said Oelsner. South Africa currently produces 93 percent of its energy from coal.

The wind farm is selling electricity to the Capetown City Council through a power purchase agreement. "We are ‘pulling a Schwarzenegger’ by working directly with provinces which have their own policies," said Oelsner, refering to the California governor’s penchant for enacting envirornmental regulations that far exceed federal standards.

The federal government did provide some money for the wind farm project, which is led by Danish investors, according to Oelsner. He envisions expanding the wind farm from 4 to 20 turbines, each with 1.3 megawatt generating capacity, and has designs on adding a 770 megawatt wave power project off the nearby western shoreline. Adding wave power would provide a "hybrid power source" as the waves are more powerful in summer while wind power is stronger in the winter.

Financing for the projects has not been lined up yet, but Oelsner does not anticipate problems. A pilot wave energy project of 5 megawatts would cost about 200 millon rand.

The wave project won’t go forward until a feed-in tariff from the province, which would guarantee an incentive for renewable power, is passed. Oelsner expects this to happen in March and hopes for an 85 cent (South African) tariff. This will give the project a big boost: feed-in tariffs in Germany and Spain have sparked the solar industry in those nations to lead the world. "We have to get a return on investment that is higher than the Eskom rate," he said.

The mining and energy companies control government policy in South Africa, according to Oelsner. He said his organization was vying to become the first working wind farm in South Africa, but the permits were held up by the government until after a small test project from Eskom could be launched. In this sense, Oelsner’s project is going against the, er, wind.

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