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FEATURE: World scientists highlight renewable energy options and opportunities

The well-respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – probably the world’s largest organised group of scientists – on Monday released a summary of its Special Report on Renewable Energy (SRREN).

The SRREN provides a comprehensive assessment of the many technical nuances that characterise the group of technologies known as ‘renewable energy’ (RE) – whether in the form of a fuel or via the generation of electricity.

It plots the sector’s tremendous growth during the first decade of the 21st century, the rapid evolution in the cost of production and generation capacity, the sector’s developmental implications and the overall environmental impact of different RE technologies.

Six basic technology types are identified and discussed: bioenergy, direct solar energy (‘direct’ since almost all energy, including fossil fuel, is ultimately derived from the sun), geothermal energy, hydropower, ocean power and wind energy.

Finally the report looks at the integration of renewable energy into current and future electricity systems (like smart grids), relative costs; and policy and financial support for the roll-out of renewable energy at a scale sufficient to achieve energy security and climate change mitigation objectives.

Implications of the report: for the world and Africa

The IPCC gathers and publishes, through global collaboration, a comprehensive consensus on the many aspects of climate change: its origin and impact, and measures to both combat and live with it.

That this machinery was directed at the theme of Renewable Energy in particular, demonstrates the key role that renewables is hoped and expected to play in global action on climate change. Yet renewable energy is also increasingly pertinent to the world for other reasons that have very little to do with climate change.

Spiking oil prices are a shock to an already-fragile global economy and affect poor countries and people more than most. Energy security considerations are driving a move away from oil, but also other fossil fuels and nuclear energy, towards renewable energy options. At least renewable energy, despite its higher upfront price-tag, leaves no uncertainty about future fuel or carbon costs and can be built in 3 years or less, not 7 to 15 years like coal or nuclear.

The World Economic Forum for Africa was held last week in Cape Town. Over the course of the event, much attention was paid to the African infrastructure investment gap in energy and transport. Renewable energy has a role to play in both of these sectors and is cost-effective compared to the status quo in any countries in Africa: oil-fuelled generators. Even coal-based power – in Africa mostly constrained to the South, including South Africa – is getting more expensive.

Evidence from South Africa confirms IPCC finding: renewables are getting cheaper

In South Africa, amidst warnings of planned power interruptions as demand exceeds available electricity supply, the latest national 20-year energy plan calls for the building of 7GW of renewable energy by 2020 and 18GW by 2030 – more than 40% of all new generation capacity in the plan. This ambition is driven by the dual consideration of meeting a greenhouse gas emission stabilisation target by the end of the decade as well as a far shorter-term need for bringing low lead-time generation capacity on-line.

Most of these renewable energy projects will (at least initially) be driven by a feed-in tariff that allows for private sector participation in a market traditionally dominated by the state-owned electricity giant of Africa, Eskom.

Soon after the publication of the energy plan, the Regulator who administers the pricing of energy in South Africa revised its initial tariff proposal for renewable energy for different renewable energy types. The revision accounted for improvements in technology costs, exchange rate and interest rates on debt, leading to a reduction in some of the cost-based tariffs of as much as 40% (in the case of solar technologies).

While the revision was a shock to the market, it was not entirely unexpected. In fact, it was in keeping with the Regulator’s original commitment to annual review and didn’t affect the procurement process for electricity from bulk renewable generation, a process which had not yet started at the time of the announcement.

Significantly, the lower updated tariffs reflect the fact that renewables are getting cheaper all the time as they mature and grow in scale – a finding shared by the IPCC. In fact, outside of solar power, the tariffs for most renewable options were lower than the average tariff (around 110 Euro/MWh) projected for 2020 by an earlier draft of the energy plan.

The way ahead

As renewable energy comes to play an ever-greater – and even dominant – role in the world’s energy supply, a wider and common understanding of its unique properties and how it integrates into networks and policies is essential for the welfare or prosperity of our economy, people and planet.

In many ways the fight against climate change – an invisible enemy – has done more for bringing humanity together in a common enterprise than any war. We approach the 21st century wielding bright new technologies in energy, transport, industry and buildings, as well as ways to make them all work together.

Pursuing a mix of clean energy technologies to power South Africa, Africa and the World is a noble task for a connected generation. International cooperation and the spread of evidence- and consensus-based information is a ‘key enabler’ – a fact recognised by the awarding of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC.

Here’s hoping that the mounting evidence that ‘the right thing’ to do for climate change is also ‘the clever thing’ to do for global development and the global economy, makes it easier in 2011 for the nations of the world to come to a (sufficient) consensus in Durban, South Africa on how to tackle climate change – and global economic challenges – together.

Peet du Plooy is a mechanical engineer turned sustainability activist. He started his career working on combustion engineering for some of the world’s largest coal power stations at Eskom, then moved into the NGO world, starting with work on trade and investment at WWF-South Africa and later on sustainable growth at TIPS, a think-tank which provides independent policy research and development to the public sector. Peet has experience in energy, transport, information technology and the economics of sustainability.

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