Editor's Choice


From the editor's desk: Life after coal

Fourth Quarter 2020 Editor's Choice

Renewable energy has been around for a while. But as attractive as the concept might have been, the hard reality was always that it just did not make economic sense. I remember not so many years ago doing the sums for a solar powered geyser for my house, and discovering that it would take 15 years to get a return on my investment. This is all changing − fast. Solar and wind power are quickly becoming cheaper than fossil fuel and nuclear. Renewables could soon account for the bulk of global electricity production, far beyond today’s 26 percent share.


Kim Roberts.

Not only do renewables need far less investment than building new coal or nuclear power plants, but the time frame is way shorter. This is before even thinking about the savings in damage to the environment due to a reduction in carbon emissions, not to mention the vast amounts of water needed to generate coal, gas and nuclear power.

The rate at which prices have fallen has surprised even the experts. Numerous reports show that building new renewable energy capacity is now comparable with the cost of coal and nuclear. Existing, older power plants already have the capital investment sunk, so they are cheaper, but in the case of South Africa, many of these plants are reaching retirement age. A UCT report, part of a global study on coal transition strategies, says that new renewable energy capacity is now considerably cheaper than coal-fired power plants like Medupi and Kusile.

A recent report by the International Renewable Energy Agency says that over half of the renewable capacity added in 2019 worldwide had lower power costs than the cheapest new coal plants. A new analysis released by Lazard compares the levelised cost of energy for various technologies on a $/MWh basis and shows that utility-scale solar and wind are frontrunners against coal and nuclear. In a world first, the state of South Australia was recently completely powered by solar energy, with 77% of the energy coming from rooftop solar systems; and Elon Musk’s next killer product looks set to be solar roof tiles that cover your whole roof. He believes the world could be powered completely by solar energy by harnessing the sun’s four million tons of energy produced every second.

“It’s not if the disruption of energy will happen, it’s when,” says a report from RethinkX, an independent think tank that analyses and forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications for society. It adds that by 2030 electricity systems comprised entirely of solar, wind and batteries will be able to provide the cheapest power and three times more total energy than the existing grid in the United States, bankrupting coal, gas and nuclear power companies and slashing consumer costs.

In South Africa renewables make sense. We have abundant solar and wind resources and a well developed grid. Currently 8% of our power comes from renewables and 88% from coal. But many of our ageing coal powered power stations will be decommissioned by 2040, and we will be building new capacity. We have a chance to leverage this huge opportunity. The Integrated Resource Plan supports a diverse energy mix and says that South Africa will keep using coal as its main power source, but will change the energy mix to 59% coal and 27% renewables by 2030. This will reduce carbon emissions, save scarce water, attract investment in energy, and create much needed jobs – resulting in a hugely positive impact on the economy. “This represents a huge, fundamental step forward in the implementation of our ambitious energy plan,” says Cyril Ramaphosa. “New generation projects that can be connected to the grid quickly will be prioritised. The next step is to initiate various procurement bidding windows in the independent power producer programme.”

It looks like we are at a tipping point in the coal transition − it’s already happening. Anyone taking a drive down the N2 past Port Elizabeth will see waves of wind turbines on the horizon; and if you look down on Sandton from the top of one of its beautiful buildings, it’s quite an eye opener to see all the solar panels and realise how many head offices are already off the grid; or if you’re driving past Upington on the N14, take a look at some of the massive new solar farms stretching as far as the eye can see; meanwhile Johannesburg and Cape Town are preparing to source their own solar power from large independent power producers.

I don’t know about you, but I’m quite excited that green electricity is round the corner at last.




Share this article:
Share via emailShare via LinkedInPrint this page

Further reading:

maxon drives are heading to the Red Planet
Third Quarter 2020, DNH Tradeserve , Editor's Choice
NASA is sending its fifth rover to Mars. Its main mission is to collect soil samples that will be analysed on Earth at a later time. The rover will also carry a helicopter that will perform the first flights on the Red Planet. maxon’s precision DC and BLDC motors will be used for numerous mission-critical tasks.

Read more...
The new mobility: how sensors control the cobots of the future
Third Quarter 2020, SICK Automation Southern Africa , Editor's Choice
The ongoing development of small, powerful and flexibly positionable robots that can collaborate with humans is progressing in leaps and bounds. Sensors from SICK Automation are an important component. ...

Read more...
Innovative mobile robots
Third Quarter 2020, Omron Electronics , Editor's Choice
Tailor-made mobile robotics revolutionise human-machine collaboration in the automotive industry.

Read more...
From the editor's desk: The future is calling
Third Quarter 2020 , Editor's Choice
The move to level 2 has brought a feeling of renewal. At last we can start thinking ahead and contemplating the future in this new digital world. SAFPA for one has taken the leap, and has engaged an association ...

Read more...
Milling machines for the aircraft industry
Third Quarter 2020, Beckhoff Automation , Editor's Choice, Electrical switching & drive systems & components
In aircraft construction, exceptional component quality and precision are crucial. However sheet-metal aircraft parts are often very large, making machining and handling problematic. Harmuth CNC-Frästechnik ...

Read more...
The role of hydraulics and pneumatics in smart mining technologies
Third Quarter 2020 , Editor's Choice, Pneumatic systems & components
A Bosch Rexroth South Africa perspective.

Read more...
Rethinking pneumatic technology for the factories of the future
Third Quarter 2020, Parker Hannifin - Sales Company South Africa , Editor's Choice, Pneumatic systems & components
As manufacturing continues its rapid journey to digitalisation, one must ask, what will become of conventional technologies? Take pneumatics for example, which remains based on the age old principle of ...

Read more...
Do all wireless solutions solve real industry problems?
Third Quarter 2020, Festo South Africa , Editor's Choice, Pneumatic systems & components
Wireless technology makes use of devices that allow us to communicate without using cables or wires and it plays a role in solving complex engineering problems. With this platform machines can communicate ...

Read more...
The future of collaborative robots
Third Quarter 2020, Omron Electronics , Editor's Choice, Robotics & Mechatronics
Collaborative robots (cobots) that can work safely in the same environment as people have an important role in enabling flexible manufacturing and creating a competitive advantage for companies. A new ...

Read more...
Moving into 2020 with Festo digitalised products
Second Quarter 2020, Festo South Africa , Editor's Choice
HoloLens, mobile phones, 3D printing and smart glasses – the gadgets that captured the public imagination in the blockbuster movie 'Back to the Future' over 30 years ago have now become a reality, all ...

Read more...