South Africa has some of the best potential use for renewable energy sources, wind and solar especially.
Strong winds off the Atlantic Coast and high solar radiation in the Kalahari Desert make for a steady power source. In fact, parts of the Kalahari get more than double the solar radiation levels of Northern Europe, where solar installations have boomed.
In the case of South Africa, renewable supply is not the problem. The country already gets about 4%, or 1,720 megawatts of its energy capacity from such renewable sources, with the goal of increasing that to 6,000 megawatts by 2020.
However, all the wind and solar power in the world won’t of any use to South Africa if its energy grids aren’t upgraded.
You see, the country’s energy transmission lines are, in large part, old and they frequently break down. This in combination with the natural intermittent qualities of renewable energy has caused blackouts that leave residents in the dark.
A major problem is simply the distance the energy has to travel: the country’s top energy consumer, Johannesburg, is about 500 miles away from the sunny Northern Cape. This means the grid will need to be strengthened enough to carry the electricity to where it is most needed.
What’s more, the growth of home photovoltaic solar panel installation is both encouraging and discouraging South Africa’s energy utilities.
On one hand, the individual solar systems must be accounted for in the new grids. The grids must be able to absorb the excess solar energy from homes, as the prospect of lowering their energy bills this way is a selling point for consumers.
On the other hand, Solafrica Energy director Nasi Rwigema warns that if energy utilities cannot improve their grid systems quickly and efficiently enough, consumers will install solar panels anyway and go off-grid entirely for their electricity needs.
“They’ll lose some of their best customers,” said Rwigema.
Fortunately, the state power company Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. has already started its own wave of grid upgrades. The company has already spent $180 million to upgrade energy transmission stations and expand its network of high-voltage power lines to and from more than 40 wind and solar farms.
There is still more work to be done, especially as the growth of renewable energy sources continues. But South Africa’s grids are being set up to facilitate the switch to cleaner power.
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