While South Africans continue to haggle over the relative advantages or costs of power from renewable and conventional sources, to our north lines are being drawn in the Sahara’s sands.
Only three years ago environmentally aware Europeans were cheering Desertec, a project to establish solar power plants over large parts of the Sahara to deliver power through a high-tech “smart” grid to Europe.
And though it might seem to lie in the realms of science fiction, the Sahara project was seen by some as a test bed for a global network of solar power.
Imagine, when it’s daytime in the Australian outback or Gobi desert, power generated there could be transmitted to night time India or Europe. And as the sun moves, generation could be taken up in the Kalahari or the Sahara, then across to the Atacama and Arizona before returning down under.
The Desertec concept was stunning in its grandeur, and price. But it is now fast biting the dust. There’s no money for the €400bn (R4.5bn) project, fewer industrial backers and, more telling, European governments are leery of relying on imports for their power, particularly imports inextricably bound to unstable countries.
Two major industrial backers – Germany’s Siemens and Bosch – have bailed out. And, in a telling comment on solar power’s attractiveness, Siemens has recently announced that it is getting out of solar to concentrate on wind power.
On the other side of the equation, North African countries would need a guaranteed export market for as much as 90% of their solar power to make capital investment worthwhile or to underpin loan finance. But what’s to be made of Spain’s recent refusal to allow a power line to be established under the sea from Morocco?
There’s nothing unusual in European security concerns. Look back half a century ago in our own history, back in the 1960s when the Cahora Bassa dam was being built to supply power to South Africa, the then government and Eskom made it perfectly clear that no more than 5% of our power needs would be imported.
History proved the then government right – civil and independence wars as well as price disputes prevented cross-border power deliveries for decades.
Meanwhile just as Eskom and the Department of Energy have finally signed off on the utility’s purchases of renewable power from the R28bn first-phase of the renewables infrastructure being established, the department should soon be announcing the chosen bidders for the R46bn second phase.
Germany is hardly known for its sunshine but a combination of tax breaks and guaranteed power buy-backs-purchase agreements stretching over 20 years has left it with more photovoltaic panels on the roofs of private homes than any other country. Why not in South Africa?
Eskom’s Hilary Joffe explain that, buying power from a myriad small private generators calls for a “smart” grid, something municipalities have yet to consider let alone create.
Europe and America have them. Measuring power delivered into the grid by giant solar farms is one thing, buying from households is another. And until this is addressed households can forget about earning an income from rooftop power panels.