POWER TO THE PEOPLE
A PEOPLE WITHOUT POWER

On Thursday night I was walking through OR Tambo International Airport on my way to a 21:00 pm flight when suddenly the entire airport went dark, there was a unanimous gasp of shock, which came from those in the airport, followed by mutterings as people started to complain, ‘Seriously they cut the power in the airport!’

Throughout 2014 Eskom, the national power utility service provider announced that it would be conducting a series of scheduled power cuts, (estimated to have cost the country over $44.4 billion since 2008[1]). Scheduled to take place throughout the country to allow Eskom to conduct necessary maintenance on its ageing and overloaded infrastructure, the country across class and geographic location in 2014 for the first time since 2008 understood at once what it means to run an economy, and ones life, in an environment of limited power supply. A reality many across the African continent face on a daily basis.

Over a weekend in November whilst Cape Town was experiencing a series of cuts, I couldn’t help but think how the cuts were affecting peoples basic day to day consumption habits, like when to bath and when to cook. Despite the opinion of many being that access to power equals the right to access to clean water, people seemed to adjust their lives much easier when faced with periodic power shortages than when faced with a lack of clean water, as was the case in many parts of the country earlier this year.

Hopefully for most, the power cuts served as a sober reminder for all South Africans that power can and should not be taken for granted. It has also served as a reminder for industry and private enterprise alike that to rely solely on government and traditional sources of power generation to ‘light up’ the country, let alone the continent, is a bitter mistake.

South Africa’s power woes are by no means new news, as the government for almost 20 years now has been haggling amongst itself over how to increase energy capacity amongst a rapidly growing population and Eskom’s long term commitments to supply power into neighbouring countries in the SADEC region. What is news, (yet seldom reported on) is the fact that South Africa could soon be ranked amongst the top countries globally making use of investment into an array of renewable energy solutions as part of its long term ambition to solve its ever looming energy crisis.

Glimmer of Hope!

South Africans are used to reading about the controversial proposals to Frack the Karoo and the dubious governmental nuclear power plant negotiations, but what they aren’t used to reading about (at least not in the mainstream media) are the numerous renewable energy projects set to come online in the coming 5 years developed under the governments Independent Power Producer (IPP) Procurement Programmes first launched in 2011.

The most recent completed project to come online is Africa’s largest power producing solar plant in the Northern Cape, which this month connected to the national grid. The Sishen solar photovoltaic (PV) plant, which is 10% owned by broad-based black economic-empowerment company Soul City and a local community trust,  will produce the power equivalent for consumption of around 100 000 South African households a year with a peak capacity of 94.3 MW. The project will supply electricity directly into the Eskom grid under a longterm PPA (power purchase agreement).

Sishen is the latest  large scale solar project to be developed in the Northern Cape in recent years, a region that has traditionally suffered from little economic development since 1994. The Sishen plant was preceeded by the Jasper Solar Power Project (the first such project of its kind in Africa to be supported by Google) which can support 80 000 households under a 20-year government supported PPA with Eskom.

All in all,  the Western and Northern Cape seem set to sport more than 8 separate photovoltaics (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP) projects in the coming years which will have a positive outlook on both the countries energy supply as well as the domestic job market. Solar is merely one example of how renewable energy has already begun to change the face of the South African energy landscape.

The first IPP procurement programme was started on the 3rd of August 2011 and is aimed at producing 3 625 megawatts of power from a variety of renewable energy technology sources, including biogas, biomass and small hydro plants in the coming decades. Although this programme has suffered its fair share of bureacracy, it finally appears that the tireless combined efforts of private sector investment, industry innovation and government facilitation is finally beginning to pay off.

Africa’s Power!

In a continent literally overwhelmed by its own wealth in natural resources, balancing between foreign gas and oil interests and local politics have in a sense forced many African countries to partake in a greener economy as renewable energy often proves more accessible to rural populations than the gas beneath their feet.

Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya have all adopted long-term renewable energy policies (to name a few). These policies, which have resulted in commitment by local governments to develop large-scale hydro, wind and solar projects have begun to attract both private sector investment and foreign government commitment (like that of the ‘Power Africa Initiative’ brokered by USAID and the African Development Bank Group) to the region.

How long these various initiatives will take to bear fruit is still to be seen. Yet despite this, individuals and budding entrepreneurs in Africa are increasingly showing signs of adopting renewable energy solutions as a means to solving multiple injustices suffered by many as a result of poverty and a lack of infrastructure. Below is a mere sample of such examples.

In Uganda, Sanga Moses founded a company that turns farm waste into briquettes for domestic cooking, called Eco-Fuel Africa[2].

Kenyan’s are increasingly adopting small-scale biogas plants for households developed by companies such as Indian based REECON and Biogas International who locally manufacture the Flexi Biogas System.

In Egypt entrepreneur Hany El-Khodary recently founded a company called Biogas People focused on dealing with Cairo and the surrounding areas vast urban and agricultural waste[3].

A Brighter Future!

In a continent seemingly left in the dark our coverage of Africa is still more often than not situational. We tend to highlight individual crisis, whats lacking, whats gone wrong, or what’s falling apart. Seldom do we take the time to cover positive developments on the continent that require a little more patience and perhaps even a little more faith. Sadly no where is this closer to the truth than in my own country, South Africa, where one would need to be a subscriber of a niche news outlet like Engineering News to hear about the launch the of the continents biggest solar project.

In the past few months we,  the public of South Africa,  have been increasingly concerned and dismayed by our national energy utility providers inability to service the nation. Nevetheless what most South African’s aren’t taking into account is that this is not the full story by a long shot. Behind the scenes there is burgeoning industry developing in renewable energy that is attracting millions if not billions of rands into the country that will,  if given the political will and private sector commitment,  provide us with a brighter future.