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.


Credit(s)



Share this article:
Share via emailShare via LinkedInPrint this page

Further reading:

A very smart material
Second Quarter 2021 , Editor's Choice, Electrical switching & drive systems & components
Shape memory materials (SMMs) are strong, lightweight materials that have the ability to recover their original shape after being deformed if a stimulus is applied. They can be programmed to remember ...

Read more...
The benefits of collaborative robots
Second Quarter 2021, SMC Corporation South Africa , Editor's Choice, Robotics & Mechatronics
While robotics led the way for the rapid growth of automation, cobots are the democratisation of robotics technology. They eliminate the cost and complex programming that robots usually require while providing much greater flexibility.

Read more...
Fast, safe transport on the factory floor
Second Quarter 2021, Omron Electronics , Editor's Choice
The Philips site in Klagenfurt produces over 23 million linear cutting elements for hair and beard trimmers each year. These beard trimmers use lift-and-trim technology: the beard hair is first lifted ...

Read more...
SKF bearings help Mars Rover collect rock
Second Quarter 2021, SKF South Africa , Editor's Choice, Shaft power components
Enabling the Mars Rover’s core operations in the harsh environment on Mars are Kaydon RealiSlim thin-section ball bearings, designed and manufactured by SKF at the company’s global thin-section bearing ...

Read more...
Hacking for a difference
Second Quarter 2021, RS Components SA , Editor's Choice, News & events
The annual Geekulcha Hackathon recently saw more than 100 coders, developers and programmers challenge each other in an online contest.The event has become a highlight in the African developer world. ...

Read more...
Energy efficiency in the chemical industry
Second Quarter 2021, Danfoss , Editor's Choice
Danfoss has widespread experience and expertise in refrigeration and in controlling the speed of AC motors in all main chemicals sectors: petrochemicals, basic inorganics, polymers, specialty and ...

Read more...
Mars helicopter makes history
Second Quarter 2021, DNH Tradeserve , Editor's Choice
This is the first time in the history of powered, unmanned spaceflight that a device has flown in a controlled manner on another planet – with the help of DC motors from maxon motor. The helicopter flew ...

Read more...
From the editor's desk: Watch this space
Second Quarter 2021, Technews Publishing , News & events
Space adventures capture our imagination − the thrill of space exploration never goes away − and this issue of Motion Control has a couple of articles relating to the ground-breaking exploits of NASA’s ...

Read more...
Land Cruiser wet brakes for mining
First Quarter 2021, Axiom Hydraulics , Editor's Choice, Hydraulic systems & components
Unfortunately, the vehicle’s OEM brakes are not built for mining; they compromise safety while suffering frequent and expensive maintenance. Simply put, the brakes were never designed for use in the highly ...

Read more...
PC-based control technology for next-generation telescope
First Quarter 2021, Beckhoff Automation , Editor's Choice, Electrical switching & drive systems & components
Key factors were the advantages of EtherCAT for site-wide real-time communication connecting all telescope functions. Various embedded PCs and AM8000 servomotors were also tested and specified, among ...

Read more...