Monday, 16 February 2015

South Africa - the inconvenient facts that you don't hear about

Mainstream Renewables invest hundreds of millions but blackouts are now mainstream in South Africa

A consortium led by Mainstream was awarded the contracts for the three wind farms by the Department of Energy in South Africa in October 2013. The farms, in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, are expected to begin construction this month.Barry Lynch, Mainstream's managing director for onshore procurement, construction and operations, said mainstream has been awarded more megawatts than any other developer under the South African Government's renewable energy procurement programme.

South Africa are investing $10 billion in procuring 3,900MW of renewable capacity. Mainstream Renewables are part of a consortium behind around 600MW of wind and solar projects, including the biggest wind farm in Africa - Jeffreys Bay at 138MW.

Jeffreys Bay, the largest wind farm in Africa, but it couldn't prevent blackouts

We are told by the company's website :

Mainstream’s role in South Africa is also to help grow a new sustainable industry. Together we can create decent jobs, stimulate rural development and bring about real skills transfer. This will ultimately result in the development of sustainable communities and businesses with long term value that will benefit all South Africans.

So is there a renewable transition in South Africa which is what we are led to believe ?

Well, South Africa is very reliant on coal for its energy needs :

Total primary energy consumption in South Africa, 2012

 According to the US Energy Agency, about 90% of its electricity comes from coal power stations. As of 2013, there was around 200MW of solar. Since then, 638MW of renewable power has been added including 240MW of wind built by Mainstream. Peak demand was around 44,000MW and installed capacity was at 45,700MW in 2013 - a very narrow margin. With the new renewable projects, total capacity now stands at around 46,340MW. But peak demand seems to have risen in the interim. The country has faced energy problems before :

In 2008, some coal mines had to halt operations because of power blackouts. In November 2013, Eskom requested that its largest industrial customers cut their consumption by 10% during peak demand times to avoid unexpected blackouts or load-shedding (scheduled power cuts). 

So has the 840MW of solar and wind built since 2012 helped S.Africa create a stable electricity supply ? Well the latest news from the country is not good :
(Link to Bloomberg Article) -- South African President Jacob Zuma said his priority is to solve the energy crisis in the country that’s curbing output at mines and factories and stifling economic growth, including adding more nuclear power by 2023.We will pursue gas, petroleum, nuclear, hydropower and other sources as part of the energy mix,” Zuma, 72, said in his annual state-of-the-nation speech in Parliament in Cape Town on Thursday. “The country is currently experiencing serious energy constraints which are an impediment to economic growth and is a major inconvenience to everyone in the country.”Zuma’s speech follows nine consecutive days of rolling blackouts implemented as demand for power outstripped supply. State utility Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd., which provides 95 percent of the nation’s electricity, has warned of almost-daily blackouts until the end of April.The power crisis has soured investor appetite for South Africa’s currency and debt. The rand reached a 13-year low against the dollar on Wednesday and foreigners dumped 6.9 billion rand ($590 million) of the nation’s bonds since Feb. 3, the first day of blackouts. The outages have curbed mining production and forced businesses to shut doors at peak times, crimping growth in Africa’s most-industrialized economy.The government is seeking to build a 9,600 megawatt nuclear-energy program, with the first power from the source in eight years, Zuma said. South Africa has signed agreements and carried out vendor workshops with the U.S., South Korea, Russia, France and China, he said.

The President is now realising the unreliable and non-dispatchable nature of renewable generation and the costs of not investing in dispatchable and reliable forms - like gas, hydro and nuclear (although Concentrated solar thermal power plants may be somewhat more reliable). One can imagine the impact this is having on ordinary people in the country going about their daily lives. As for industry and economic growth, these are completely incompatible with the "green" vision of restricted electricity consumption and restricted conventional (reliable / dispatchable) forms of electricity generation. This then has a further knock on effect on ordinary people in the form of job losses.

It seems that the South African media (ESI Africa) had the bit of savvy to figure out the problem with renewables even before the re-occurrence of the blackouts :

Renewable IPPs not a big contributor to South Africa’s peak demand - while the number of renewable energy IPPs that are connected to the grid continues to grow and contribute to meeting the country’s energy demands, the contribution over peak is currently not substantial.

ESI Africa magazine is described as the leading provider of information relating to the African electricity and energy industry, delivering news to the continent and beyond and represents a broad spectrum of African energy organisations - including sustainable energy companies. 

So what are the qualified engineers there saying ?

GIBB is described as a leading multi-disciplinary engineering consulting firm based in South Africa with 67% Black ownership. One of the projects they were involved in was the construction of quality houses in Kwadukuza, a region of S.Africa. 

Their General manager, Paul Fitzsimons (a good Irish name), was quoted in the magazine last Friday as saying (full article here - can you imagine the opinion of an equivalent engineer in Ireland being valued like this in the Irish media, like the opinions of ex-Green ministers with no engineering qualifications often are ? ):

“Power and energy supply worldwide is an extremely complex business and to simply hold up one nation’s apparent solution [UK] as a one size fits all solution for South Africa is a gross oversimplification of the facts and indicates a lack of understanding of the problems these countries also face,” 
“While we would all like a world with less pollution and fewer carbon emissions, wind and solar generation cannot realistically supply base load generation.” 
“Germany is a good example of this, where instead of reducing its carbon footprint, it actually increased due to its dependence on coal fired stations when wind and solar generation was not sufficient to completely fill the void left by an exodus of nuclear power”, Fitzsimons continued.
So the South African government (despite what other faults they may have) and qualified experts in the field of energy are getting "real" about the future of electricity generation and are realising that the weather does not owe us a 21st Century standard of living. S.Africa is the country where green ideology is meeting the harsh reality of the laws of physics and the outcome is not pleasant if you live there.  

How ironic that those who are most worried about the effects of "climate change" on the African people are silent when an over investment in "green technology" to curb this perceived threat leads to blackouts, unemployment and economic devastation.

Lessons we can all learn here in Ireland.


  1. By now the thousands of readers on this blog will have formed an opinion on weather sourced electricity generation. Those who feel wind has a roll to play will not be influenced by anything I say, at least not until their kids are kept awake due to turbine noise or they loose their job due to costly power. The rest will now realise that we have being led up a blind alley and that the weather does not owe us power. The basic mistake was to abandon measurement standards and fail to assess it. The correct way to measure wind has nothing to do with how much of it can be produced, but what value that production has in contributing to supply. The answer is practically nil. Paul Fitzsimmons confirms my claim that wind cannot be used for base load generation. There is no doubt that experienced traditional power suppliers should have warned government better. I accept they might not be listened to, but they should have covered themselves better. I think it was the herd instinct, pier pressure. Denmark and Germany were held up like sports stars or celebrity artists just when the older more astute politicians of the post war era were departing. Wind wasn't working in these countries, but Angela Merkel and Tony Brair thought their charisma would jump from public perception to the grid. The electrical system of South Africa is just an interconnected machine, like a lawnmower, If you don't put petrol in, you wont cut the grass. The fact that the entire world can be easily fooled is both laughable and worrying. I suspect it's is a culture of entitlement, "We deserve weather sourced power"! is the underlying belief. Like Clint Eastwood said in the film "The Unforgiven" to the dying man who felt he deserved better "Deserve's got nothing to do with it"

  2. South Africa had a perfectly good electrical generation and distribution system under the control of Eskom before the engineers were displaced by politicians. The South African Wind Energy Association (SAWEA) has named Mainstream Renewable Power South Africa “Lead Developer 2014” at its annual awards ceremony in Cape Town. The “Lead Developer 2014” accolade is in recognition of Mainstream South Africa being awarded more megawatts than any other developer under the Government’s Round 3 Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme (REIPPPP). It is to be hoped that Dipolelo Elford, chairperson of SAWEA, has a plan for keeping the lights on during windless days!

  3. Many people would prefer to believe a simple lie than a complex truth. In the absence of a scientifically recognised way to measure the contribution of wind any claim is indisputable. This includes claims that when everything is counted over one year, as it is the case with business accounts, wind farms are net consumers of electricity. Can anyone come up with anything else which is incapable of being measured?. Why have we got universities?

    1. Yes - the cost of Mr. Zuma's residence at Nkandla. Totally immesurable by normal means. Find out more at

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  5. I removed the comment above because it was an accidental duplicate, identical to my previous one. I meant any mechanical or other physical device rather than the residence of policy makers. If we go down that road, I would point to the fact that the EU does not balance its budget and has 89 Billion Euros unaccounted for and that the Mafia are involved in wind energy. Many people I speak with tell me that whether wind works or not is not the issue, the issue is that we must be seen to do something. We have to make a gesture. To me this is the same idea ancient societies had about animal and human sacrifice. If crops failed, they buried a 3 year old baby alive and left it to die. Burning witches etc. Check out Mass Hysteria on Wikipedia, There are methods to measure the buoyancy of ships, to avail of the gravitational pull of distant planets for space travel, the most efficient speed of a car, company accounts, weight gain in cattle, yet, there is no recognised method to measure the real contribution of wind to the grid system over one year, One effect of this is that turbines are getting bigger and bigger but there is no way to count the actual effect of the increase. Planners have no way to judge if smaller ones would suffice. This begs the question; why are we doing this?

  6. I have recently returned from South Africa and experienced "load shedding" where the electricity is turned off, ostensibly to reduce pressure on an overburdened grid. This used to be an orderly exercise according to a national schedule but that has long since gone and any pretence of organisation has been replaced by erratic and unscheduled switch-offs. Those who can afford it are investing in diesel generators and portable solar energy packs in an attempt to maintain some semblance of a normal life. Whilst there I spoke to as many people as I could but also experienced first-hand the chaos that is the South African electricity system. As I see it the primary problems there are incompetent management at Eskom, which in turn has meant little or no maintenance of the pylons, power lines or existing power stations (including Koeberg, an ageing nuclear power station which is a Chernobyl waiting to happen), illegal connections to the power grid, and rampant theft of installations, mostly of copper wire. The adding of additional wind capacity to an already rusting / creaking grid will not solve anything, and is far more likely to cause an overall blackout when something goes bang. Not that this will stop Mainstream - we warned them that the same thing will happen here and still they press on regardless. Don't believe the bullshit about "helping our African cousins - It's all about the money - make as much as you can as quickly as you can and then get the hell out before it all goes bang.

    1. Thanks Neil for this informative post of what is going on there. Some real problems lie ahead for them, I hope they can sort it out but investing in unreliable sources of power surely is not going to help the situation. I think a lot of people in Ireland will soon be turning to diesel generators too as the govt here do not seem to care about the cost of energy anymore.......