Renewable energy – The new world
10 January 2017
Recently there has been a lot of press around Eskom’s future plans for a nuclear program in South Africa, and also a lot of concerns raised by South Africans about the program.
It makes sense for us to start planning for a future powered by renewable energy instead of nuclear energy. In South Africa we always seem to be following instead of taking the initiative to lead. We have an environment in many ways ideally suited for alternative forms of electricity generation and with technology improving and prices falling in this space every day we have a real opportunity to lead the green energy revolution instead of desperately trying to grab onto the fast decaying carcass of nuclear energy.
NUCLEAR ENERGY IS EXPENSIVE AND RISKY
A recent study by EE publishers estimates that the new 9.6 GW build program would cost R776bn excluding interest during construction. However looking at the costs being incurred at Medupi and Kusile, mere coal fire power plants like the ones we have been using for ages, the cost of the nuclear build program is likely to be even higher than estimated. In April 2007, prior to the plants being built, the costs to completion for Medupi and Kusile were estimated at R69.1bn and R80.6bn and by July of this year it had ballooned to R135bn and R160bn respectively.
One danger of nuclear power plants that is often overlooked is the uncertainty around how to manage the nuclear waste of these plants. It consumes a finite and dangerous material, uranium, and produces a dangerous radio-active waste. Nuclear power may be cleaner from an emissions point of view but it is far from being renewable. The World Nuclear Association is the international organization that represents the global nuclear industry and it promotes nuclear energy. On its website it states that, due to its prolonged radioactivity, appropriate disposal arrangements are required for High-Level Waste (HLW) in the long-term. It also says that disposal solutions are currently being developed for HLW that are safe, environmentally sound and publicly acceptable. In other words, there aren’t currently HLW disposal solutions which are safe, environmentally sound and publicly acceptable.
Natural disasters and human error
Safety in the transportation of nuclear waste and mining of uranium necessary for production in nuclear power plants poses threats to humans and animals. Nuclear facilities themselves are vulnerable to natural disasters (like we saw in Japan) and also to human error and attack. We have already seen examples of security breaches at Koeberg nuclear power plant and its main Nuclear Research Centre at Pelindaba. By 2012 there had already been four security breaches at each of the two facilities in ten years. In one of the incidents Pelindaba’s emergency control manager, Anton Gerber, was shot after spotting four men stealing a laptop computer in the control room. The gunmen were described by the Nuclear Energy Corporation CEO Rob Adams as “technically sophisticated common criminals”, who had managed to bypass Pelindaba’s 10000V perimeter fence and move around the premises undetected for 45 minutes before shooting Gerber and escaping. No one was arrested. Most recently, of course, there were two more incidents, one where a civilian drone crashed into a building at Koeberg and another where three senior managers at the station were suspended for the distribution of documentation containing unauthorised facts and assumptions relating to Koeberg.
Understandably, the South African public is less than comfortable with more nuclear power plants being erected in our country when it is already clear that security management at the two existing facilities is an issue. Especially since, Pelindaba for example, reportedly contains 600kg of weapons-grade uranium, enough to build 20 nuclear bombs.
RENEWABLE ENERGY SAVES COSTS IN THE LONG TERM AND HARNESSES THE ENVIRONMENT
It saves costs over the long-term
As early as in 2011 the International Energy Agency reported that: “A portfolio of renewable energy technologies is becoming cost-competitive in an increasingly broad range of circumstances, in some cases providing investment opportunities without the need for specific economic support,” and added that “cost reductions in critical technologies, such as wind and solar, are set to continue”. In our work in the rooftop renewable energy space, we have seen building costs fall 33% over the last year alone. This while efficiencies across the technological components making up renewable energy plants continues to increase rapidly.
Prohibitively high capital cost has always been a hurdle to making businesses and commercial enterprises part of the green energy revolution. It has been seen as a nice to have instead of something that makes true commercial sense. However the days of rooftop renewable energy powering your factory or office block are here. There are innovative financial solutions available to commercial and industrial clients, which don’t require any capital outlay. Not only does renewable energy reduce reliability on the grid but it also gives real, tangible electricity savings over the long term.
It harnesses the environment
The main argument against abandoning renewable energy in favour of nuclear energy is it’s so called inability to provide base load. It is true that solar farms can only produce electricity when the sun shines and wind farms when the wind blows but other sources of renewable energy like bio-electricity, generated from burning the residues of crops for example, is constantly available – and the wind is always blowing somewhere! With strategic planning wind energy can be harnessed more effectively.
A game changer in this field is the development of battery storage technology which will see us being able to store renewable energy for use during times when the sun does not shine. The advancements by Elon Musk’s Powerwall and Powerpack products along with a slew of other battery technologies in the process of development makes it clear that we will soon be able to turn the lights on in the middle of the night with electricity we generated during the day.
RENEWABLE ENERGY IS THE NEW WORLD
Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, and Mark Delucchi published a study in 2011 on 100% renewable global energy supply. They found producing all new energy with wind power, solar power, and hydropower by 2030 is feasible and existing energy supply arrangements could be replaced by 2050. Barriers to implementing the renewable energy plan are seen to be primarily social and political, not technological or economic.
Our country is in an economically precarious position. We are struggling to find money for education, much needed infrastructure development and housing. We are as close to being downgraded as one can be and as the cost of developing nuclear power is priced in USD it means the cost estimates given above are likely to only rise further. Instead of looking for ways to discontinue the wildly successful REIPPP program which has brought in large amounts of proper foreign direct investment into our country (and created much needed jobs) – let’s embrace our environment and pursue renewable energy as our future.
Contact us for more information on the financing solutions available for renewable energy projects.
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