Page last updated at 08:11 GMT, Monday, 15 June 2009 09:11 UK

Fresh air to power South Africa?

Darling Wind Farm

By Lucy Fleming
BBC News, Cape Town

If Hermann Oelsner had his way, statuesque wind turbines would dominate the landscape of the Western Cape, breathing fresh air into South Africa's beleaguered power industry.

Seventy kilometres north of Cape Town, down a dirt track with a sign warning, "beware this property is protected by snakes", are the four 17-storey-high structures that make up the country's first private wind farm.

Last year, amidst nationwide blackouts, Mr Oelsner oversaw the commercial launch of Darling Wind Farm to produce electricity for Cape Town city council.

Nearly every day the electricity ran away
Alexandra resident Norman Kgwadi

The 5.2 megawatt project has been on hold for several months because of a row between the funding partners, but given it has taken Mr Oelsner a dogged 12 years to get this far, he seems unfazed by the latest hurdle.

"Each turbine at full capacity can run 1,300 one-bar heaters per hour," the wind-power pioneer says, sitting in his office crammed full of old musical instruments and a small windmill wired up to an old-fashioned radio.

Compared to the national demand for power, he admits it is not much but he believes wind will eventually prove key to solving the country's energy crisis, which at one stage last year forced gold and platinum mines to shut down for several days.

"Nearly every day the electricity ran away," recalls Norman Kgwadi, an unemployed resident of the poor Alexandra township in Johannesburg, about the power cuts.

"Especially in June, when it was cold. One day no electricity, or [on another] three hours."

A sign saying: “Beware this property is protected by snakes”
The road leading to Darling Wind Farm

Big business was up in arms and a shiver went down the spines of the 2010 football Word Cup organisers.

A regime of load-shedding was implemented and emergency measures by Eskom, the state power company, have brought the situation under control.

Because of the urgency, traditional, carbon-producing sources were used.

Three mothballed coal-fired power stations have been reopened, two others are being built and a diesel-fuelled gas turbine was recently completed.

Nonetheless the shortages did focus attention on renewable energies - and the government's target, made in 2003, to have 10m megawatt hours of green power by 2013.

Hermann Oelsner
It's cheaper to build wind farms here than in Europe where the utilities are battling to reduce their CO2 [carbon] footprint
Hermann Oelsner

That is about 5% of South Africa's present electricity generation - and equivalent to about one of the re-commissioned coal-fired stations, according to the Department of Minerals and Energy.

With negligible renewable energy feeding into the grid at the moment, a lot needs to done in the next four years to reach that target.

The blades at Darling Wind Farm - a demonstration project funded in part by Danish and South African government money - are unlikely to turn again until the outcome of arbitration.

Meanwhile, Eskom, which set up a 3.2 megawatt test wind plant seven years ago, has put on hold its first commercial 100 megawatt wind venture. It had been due to open next year in the Western Cape, but it has blamed the delay on the current economic downturn.

'Risk-free money'

These apparent setbacks, however, do not dampen Mr Oelsner's zeal and he believes the recently announced "feed-in tariffs" will allow the private sector to flourish.

They guarantee prices (15 US cents per kilowatt hour) for electricity supplied by private set-ups like his.

Industrial consumers in South Africa are paying the lowest tariffs in the world
Eskom's Mohsin Seedat

"The local utility at the moment is battling to find finance - in the renewable [sector], the investors are waiting to come streaming in [with] money from overseas," says Mr Oelsner, a German engineer who came to South Africa 41 years ago to market oil heaters.

"They can make money here risk-free," he says.

"We have a fantastic wind regime, it's sparsely populated and where we want to build wind farms is very poor farmland - and even if there's good farmland beneath, we only use 1% of the ground so you can carry on with your farming."

"It's cheaper to build wind farms here than in Europe where the utilities are battling to reduce their CO2 [carbon] footprint."

Powerlines near Darling, South Africa
Total capacity: 44,000 MW
Coal - 33,938 MW
Mothballed coal - 3,720 MW
Nuclear - 1,930 MW
Hydro - 600 MW
Pumped storage hydro - 1,400 MW
Gas - 2,409 MW
Wind - 3.2 MW
New projects
Coal - 9,600 MW (two stations)
Pumped storage hydro - 1,330 MW
Wind - 100 MW
Source: Eskom

According to Mr Oelsner, it is the prospect of carbon trading, where governments and companies can buy permits to exceed carbon-emission caps, that makes South Africa such an attractive investment.

Mohsin Seedat, who is responsible for nuclear, gas and renewable projects at Eskom, agrees there is a lot of interest in the renewable energy market.

He says many firms are looking at a variety of projects from wind and solar to waste-to-energy schemes, but warns they should not see South Africa as a soft touch, as environmental rules are strict and cannot be flouted.

And while carbon trading does lower the price of wind-powered electricity, it is still about three times more expensive than coal-produced energy, he says.

"Industrial consumers in South Africa are paying the lowest tariffs in the world," he says. "There's a definite requirement to maintain these low electricity prices as stimulus for growth in the economy especially in the current economic climate."

There is also a political commitment to make sure all South Africans have access to and can afford power.

In its recent election manifesto, the ruling African National Congress said two years after the end of apartheid in 1996, 58% of the population had electricity. Today that stands at 80%, and it wants to attain universal access by 2014.

"Our renewable energy strategy, which is based on promoting low-carbon and zero-polluting renewable energy technologies... is not motivated on an economic comparison to coal, it's promoted on the basis of environmental concerns," Mr Seedat says.

Solar attraction

However, Mr Oelsner urges patience and preaches against instant gratification.

An old-fashioned windmill wired up to a radio
All sort of old artefacts litter Mr Oelsner's office

"No, it's not expensive," he remonstrates. "You must not forget in the beginning there is a high capital layout not like coal-fired and other subsidised industries - we have to pay our debt back within 12 years, but after there is no cost for fuel - later on comes the golden years."

And as Cape Town city council has shown, he says, there is a small domestic "green market" prepared to pay over the odds for environmentally friendly electricity.

Eskom's wind atlas - created after 10 years of research - says South Africa's wind resource is "moderate", as it is seasonal.

"'Moderate? - far from it," says Mr Oelsner. "Darling Wind Farm is the perfect example of one of the best wind sites in the world with the turbines at 'full load' for a third of the year."

But in terms of a long-term renewable alternative, solar energy may be a more attractive option for Eskom.

"We have an excellent solar resource," says Mr Seedat.

Big projects, however, are in their infancy as the market waits to see how solar schemes being pioneered in Spain - with attractive feed-in tariffs - work out, he says.

If you want to ban the wind turbines because of birds - let's rather kill all the cats
Hermann Oelsner

On a smaller scale, Eskom has been encouraging consumers to buy solar water heaters instead of electric geysers.

"That's been working quite successfully for a year and a bit and it's growing immensely - the consumer buys a solar water heater from an accredited supplier and then receives a rebate from Eskom of about a fifth of the purchase price," he says.

Generating power from South Africa's strong ocean currents will also be on the cards in years to come.

But for Mr Oelsner, the swish of the wind turbine is the answer and should be pursued post-haste.

And he has no time for those who question his vision, whether they bring up arguments over cost or bird-safety:

"If you want to ban the wind turbines because of birds - let's rather kill all the cats because they're killing birds in the millions in a very cruel way or let's close all the streets because most bird casualties are on our open roads.

"We have had not a single bird killed for one year now - it's a nonsense."

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