South Africa’s Fossil Fuel Folly

South Africa’s slow uptake of sustainable, renewable energy resources, underlined by its dependency on poorly maintained, fossil-fueled power stations and protracted delays in commissioning two new coal-fired stations, has plunged the country in a series of nationwide blackouts.

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The 4MW Merino hydropower station was commissioned on the Ashe River in South Africa in 2012.

The move to renewable power, as the government struggled with the principle of loosening its grip on electrical power generation, was given impetus as recently as three years ago when a decision was taken to allocate 17,800 MW of “green” electricity through renewable energy sources to be connected to the national grid by 2030. Eskom, South Africa’s quasi-government electrical power utility, estimated that the country would need an estimated additional 40,000 MW of power by that date.

The renewable energy power procurement process is taking place over five bid “windows” with the private sector competing for allocated wind, solar and, to a far lesser extent, hydroelectric power. The latter projects are for 10MW small hydroelectric projects. Two such projects have been completed and two are underway – but there was no allocation for pico (from a few hundred watts up to 20kW), micro (from 20kW up to 100 kW) or mini (above 100 kW but below 1 MW) projects.

Government has been praised for supporting small hydro schemes, the maximum capacity of which has been extended to 40 MW to improve viability. There has also been progress with the drawing up of guidelines for the development of in-line conduit hydropower at metropolitan municipalities and water boards.

But hydropower activitists are critical of the apparent refusal by government to recognise the potential of pico, micro and mini hydro plants using proven and cost effective technology which has provided sustainable ‘green’ power to rural, semi rural and even urban areas in countries such as China, Germany, Canada and the United States for more than 40 years.

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Developers of hydroelectric power plants in South Africa have to meet stringent environmental requirements, such as the construction of fish ladders to allow the migration of breeding fish species.

Published figures indicate that China has more than 80,000 such plants providing power to communities that might otherwise not have had access to service. Li Zhiwu of China’s National Research Institute for Rural Electrification says in a recent paper that about 300 million people in that country enjoy the benefits of electrical power from plants generating between 100 kW and 50 MW.

In African countries such as Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, organizations such as Practical Action have developed suitable micro applications on a small scale. But Africa lags far behind countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bolivia in the use of such “green” generating capacity.

While South Africa is not endowed with water-rich resources, it is common cause that there is significant development potential for the establishment of hydro installations ranging from small to pico in large parts of the country.

At present, no mini, micro or pico installations exist in rural areas in South Africa for rural electrification, apart from privately owned systems on farms.

Bo Barta and Arno Ottermann, consultants in small hydro power (SHP) development in South Africa, conclude that there are numerous potential sites nationwide suitable for the establishment of small scale hydro plants – at existing dams and on rivers. At least eleven dams – controlled by the national department of water affairs, by Eskom or by district and local municipalities – can be equipped or refurbished with conventional hydropower equipment.

It is estimated that nationally about 25 percent of South Africa’s 3,500 dams could be retrofitted for hydropower generation, aside from serving their original purpose of storing water for urban consumption and irrigation.

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An irrigation canal carrying water from the Orange River for winelands visible in the background has been diverted around the site of the Neusberg small hydropower station under construction in South Africa. This is one of the few new hydroelectric projects approved by the government in terms of its renewable energy strategy.

Good progress is being made with the construction of South Africa’s third run-of-river hydro plant on the Orange River, South Africa’s longest river, and further plans for a further two plants on that river are being developed. The approved projects fall under the banner of Hydro SA in partnership (with Hydro Tasmania of Australia) and NuPlanet Project Development.

These and earlier small hydroelectric projects are proceeding under the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement (REIPPP) program that targets 3,625 MW of renewable energy. Of that target, only 75 MW is intended for hydropower while the majority share of 80 percent goes to solar (photovoltaic and concentrated solar power) and wind. Power from these projects will be distributed via the national grid and will not specifically meet the requirements of communities where the power is being generated.

So far, only a small portion of the total hydro power allocation has been utilised after three bidding windows, mainly due to the relatively longer lead times required for the development of hydro power installations. No hydropower projects have been allocated to the fourth bidding window.

Research into SHP in South Africa

Barta, who is researching SHP applications for the Water Research Commission (WRC), takes the view that the exclusion of small scale hydro electric technologies including pico, micro and mini renewable energy projects (schemes below 1MW in capacity) from REIPPP is restricting “the real and lucrative development opportunities available in some urban and most rural areas.”

“The small hydro power opportunities available particularly to the rural communities are overlooked and without the helping hand from local financial local providers (i.e., mainly commercial banks) and international financial support the process of development of this technology is being sadly retarded,” says Barta. “This is contrary to the small scale renewable energy resources development approach in many other countries where the emphasis and concessions are given primarily to the private developers supplying local communities with power.”

According to Barta, the government of South Africa recognizes SHP as an “exemplary” form of power production. “However, the development of projects with capacity <1 MW is not supported at present by the commercial banks or any particular governmental incentives,” she adds. “The small scale hydro electricity development potential in the water sector in South Africa ranges between 300 kW and 3 MW if hydro power retrofitting is taken into consideration.”

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The Neusberg 10MW small hydropower project under construction on the Orange River in South Africa.

At present, from the total of 45,500 MW of installed energy generation capacity in South Africa, hydropower contributes only five percent. However, the theoretical hydropower potential in South Africa (excluding possibly the importation of hydropower from neighboring countries) is estimated in the long term at more than 17,500 MW from all types of hydropower, including pumped storage schemes. This total is primarily located at potential greenfields developments and at viable existing hydraulic infrastructure (dams and water conduits) around the country.

Potential private sector contractors are experiencing an apparent lack of interest in official circles regarding either the retrofitting of mothballed plants or the installation of mini, micro and pico systems. A local company approached both the national department of water affairs and various municipalities with proposals to undertake refurbishment and retrofitting of existing legacy plants at no capital cost to the authorities. His proposals have been met with indifference.

How does the official attitude towards hydro power in South Africa compare with the approach of governments in other countries?

“Over the last few decades, there has been a growing realization in developing countries that micro hydro schemes have an important role to play in the economic development of remote rural areas, especially mountainous ones,” reports the UK’s Schumacher Centre for Technology and Development. “Micro-hydro schemes can provide power for industrial, agricultural and domestic uses through direct mechanical power or by the coupling of the turbine to a generator to produce electricity.”