The world experienced its largest increase in green, renewable energy in 2015, adding over 147 gigawatts of wind, solar and other alternative energy power to the global grid, according to the Renewables 2016 Global Status Report, released on 1 June by the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, or REN21.
South Africa is one of the stand-out green nations, making remarkable strides in renewable energy, says Christine Lins, the REN21 executive secretary.
According to the report, the $1-billion (about R15.6-billion today) investment in African renewable energy initiatives in 2004 increased to more than $12-billion in 2015/16, a growth of 58%, thanks in large part to projects begun in South Africa.
South Africa was the first country on the continent to produce a gigawatt from solar power, and its contribution to wind power generation had pushed Africa’s output to more than 3 gigawatts.
Global investment in renewable energy is driven, the report states, by being both cost competitive with traditional fossil fuels and a dynamic job creator in several countries, particularly in Africa.
“Renewable generation has created 60 000 jobs in Africa, and of those, half are in South Africa,” says Lins. This boost has been driven mainly by South Africa’s successful Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme.
The REN21 report confirms that governments are still key in driving renewables as a legitimate power alternative.
While 173 countries are meeting renewable energy targets in 2016, with South Africa especially making up ground in utility-scale renewable generation, a challenge still remains in effectively using residential energy production.
As has become the norm in Europe and North America, households that generate their own electricity through solar or wind power are encouraged to sell electricity back to local and national utility operations.
South Africa has the infrastructure and know-how to incentivise individual power generation to help bring renewable energy to more people, in turn lessening the reliance on fossil fuels.
The boost in South Africa’s renewable energy profile, fuelled by larger and better-performing energy solutions with the full support of the government and private enterprise is “truly remarkable”, says Lins, “(particularly when) achieved at a time when fossil fuel prices were at historic lows, and renewables remained at a significant disadvantage in terms of government subsidies”.
Facing one of the worst droughts in memory, South Africa’s leaders have doubled down on their support of the water-intensive coal industry. But clean energy advocates say the smartest move would be to back the country’s burgeoning wind and solar power sectors.
Until a ferocious drought withered crops, turned rivers to trickles, and dried up municipal drinking water supplies, one of Limpopo province’s distinctions was the ample sun and good soil that made it South Africa’s premier producer of fruits and vegetables.
Another distinction was that the province’s farmers made an informal agreement to share scarce water with coal companies developing the Waterberg Coalfield that lies beneath dry central Limpopo.
The drought, the most extreme in South Africa since the start of the 20th century, shattered the fragile equilibrium between the agricultural and coal sectors. Pitched street clashes between farmers and police, who back the coal interests, have broken out south of Musina, where Coal Africa proposes to build a $406 million mine in an area where some of the country’s most productive vegetable farms operate. The mine would consume 1 million gallons of water a day, according to company disclosures. Both the mine and neighboring irrigated farms are dependent on the Nzhelele River, which has dwindled to a shallow stream.
Higher temperatures and diminished rainfall, which many scientists attribute to climate change are wreaking havoc in two of South Africa’s largest economic sectors — agriculture and energy. Yet in the face of this growing crisis, South Africa’s leaders continue to display unyielding allegiance to the nation’s water-guzzling coal sector, whose 50-plus billion tons of coal reserves fuel 90 percent of the country’s electrical generating capacity and provide a third of its liquid fuels. Coal also generates hundreds of millions of metric tons of climate-changing carbon emissions annually that aggravate South Africa’s warming and drying.
President Jacob Zuma’s promotion of the coal sector, though, fails to recognize an emerging solution — the renewable energy initiatives that began during the previous administration of Thabo Mbeki. Today, 13 wind power plants and 31 solar generating stations are operating in South Africa and $6 billion has been invested in renewable energy installations. These projects, which do not pollute the air and use scant amounts of water, represent 75 percent of the new electrical capacity generated by South Africa this century, according to the most recent report by the South Africa Department of Energy.
Roughly 45 sizable wind and solar projects are in various stages of construction, financing, and permitting. Indeed, the country appears well on its way to reaching the national target of 6,000 new megawatts of renewable generating capacity by 2020 and 18,000 new megawatts by 2030.
During the nine-year administration of President Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as the nation’s second black president, South Africa seemed to be preparing for an economy that discouraged carbon emissions and resource waste, and encouraged conservation. Even as Mbeki criticized global environmental summits as Western efforts to impede development in poor nations, he nevertheless encouraged elevating ecological principles to prominence in South Africa’s economic development strategy. In 2008, the year Mbeki left office, South Africa adopted a national framework for sustainable development, which called for lowering carbon emissions and water consumption.
Although the South African private sector has been steadily expanding wind and solar power, President Zuma has shown no such enthusiasm for renewable energy. The president’s last two years in office have generated fierce criticism and public protests because of his government’s faltering response to dwindling supplies of water for drinking and irrigation. Critics also have attacked his proposals for new water-consuming coal, uranium, and nuclear projects.
Activists argue that neither the coal-based energy strategy nor nuclear power are suitable for the ecological conditions and market opportunities of this century. They cite the example of the Karoo Desert south of Johannesburg, where South Africa’s uranium reserves lie. The Karoo is one of the driest landscapes on the planet, yet the first big mine proposed there would consume 1 million gallons of water a day.
“Energy is the biggest threat to South Africa’s environment — it’s a threat to our water and our economy,” said Bobby Peek, founder and director of groundWork, one of the country’s premier environmental organizations. The group is working with community organizations to stop the Colenso coal-fired plant in KwaZulu-Natal, which would siphon off millions of gallons daily from the headwaters of the Tugela River. “There’s a drought happening,” said Peek. “It’s serious. But it’s as if our government is stuck deep in the sand and doesn’t want to see what’s going on.”
Just this week, the Zuma administration announced a new program to collaborate with Iranian financiers to address water scarcity by building desalination plants in coastal cities. Critics noted that the announcement ignored the reality of the plants’ many billions of dollars in costs, or that South Africa’s credit rating is near junk status.
Some officials are acknowledging South Africa’s growing water problems.
“There are significant difficulties from this drought,” said Dhesigen Naidoo, the chief executive of the National Water Commission, a research and science agency in Pretoria. “The drought cannot be managed the way previous droughts have been managed. In previous droughts we hadn’t factored in climate change. We are convinced that this drought is not part of a normal drought cycle that we’ve had in the past. This one is quite different. So we regard this as a drought in the climate change scenario, and our planning is working around that.”
Limpopo, about the size of Louisiana, borders Zimbabwe in South Africa’s north. In the town of Lephalale, farmers and other rural residents are locked in battles to protect water supplies from new power plants, as well as from plans to expand mining in the Waterberg Coalfield.
Eskom, South Africa’s state-owned electric utility, is building one of the new coal-burning plants, the 4,800-megawatt Medupi coal-fired power station, on a stretch of dry land west of Lephalale. When its six generating units are fully operational, perhaps by the early 2020s, the plant will consume 6.9 billion gallons of water annually.
South Africa anticipated the need for a torrent of processing water for the Medupi plant by spending $1 billion to build pumping stations, water supply and storage infrastructure, and 130 miles of pipeline to tap the distant Crocodile and Mokolo rivers. But the ongoing drought is producing fresh evidence that the two rivers may not have sufficient water in the 2020s and beyond to sustain agriculture, a fast-growing population, existing industries, and a gigantic power plant now estimated to cost $16 billion to complete.
The president’s devotion to coal has prompted intensifying civic resistance, which is showing some results. The administration’s environmental approval of the proposed 1,200-megawatt Thabametsi coal-fired station, to be built near Medupi, has been suspended following a formal appeal by groundWork and Earthlife, another prominent South African environmental organization.
In April, following an appeal by Vhembe Mineral Resources Stakeholders Forum — a group of Limpopo farmers and residents — the South Africa Water Tribunal reversed a January ruling by the Department of Water Affairs and suspended COAL South Africa’s water use license to develop the Makhado mine. The ruling halted indefinitely the development of the mine.
Such defiance is not persuasive to South Africa’s president, nor to those in his administration charged with reviewing and approving Limpopo’s new mine and power plant projects. Last August, Zuma traveled to Limpopo to attend the commercial opening of the 794-megawatt Unit 6 at Medupi, the first new coal-fired generator to start in South Africa this century.
He praised the big new plant and emphasized the need to meet the country’s demand for electricity. “The energy shortage is a serious obstacle to growth,” said Zuma. “In this regard, the opening of Unit 6 is a significant achievement for the country.”
Zuma has never attended the opening of a wind or solar installation. Three months after his appearance at Medupi, Zuma delivered an address at the G20 gathering of heads of state in Turkey. In his speech, Zuma could not remember how much money is being invested to develop the first 6,000 megawatts of renewable energy in South Africa, which is 1,200 more megawatts of generating capacity than Medupi. Zuma told the G20 leaders it was $14 million. The accurate amount is $13.4 billion, or $3 billion less than the current estimated cost of completing Medupi.
The founder of Jaguar Containers, William Coit, has created shipping container homes with solar power systems and is currently running an Indiegogo campaign. Mr. Coit answered some questions about his shipping container homes for Cleantechnica.
How many square feet of living space does a Jagpod have?
The 20 ft. unit has 144 square feet and the 40 ft. unit has 300 square feet of living space. The 20-foot JagPods are easier to transport and maneuver, with prices starting at $30,000. The 40 ft unit offers greater value and more space, starting at $60,000. These units include solar panels.
What size will the solar power system be for a Jagpod, in watts?
2-4 panels, with each panel being 235 Watts, plus the mounting array, inverter, controller and 27 volt battery bank.
Will there be any energy storage?
Yes there will be energy storage to eliminate the unpredictability of energy off the grid.
Is a Jagpod intended to be grid-connected or off-grid?
Both. Some of our customers will buy units that will be near a utility grid and it makes sense to connect them to it. For customers that live off the grid, we’ll use the standalone solar system.
Is your target audience in the US, abroad or both?
Initially, we are targeting customers in the US but our long-term goal is to sell units internationally. We have a global solution for third world countries that solves its housing needs. The JagPod can be built in 90 days and deployed anywhere in the world.
Does a Jagpod come with a warranty, and if so, what is it?
The JagPod carries a 10 year structural warranty. It offers great resistance to natural disasters, including resistance to winds of up to 100 mph.
Some shipping containers people buy for homes are used and need to be cleaned, sanded and painted. Do you take care of that for each one or your containers or do you sell brand new ones?
Yes, we do. We use both used and new containers for building the JagPod. Used shipping containers are certified that they are structurally sound, cleaned, sanded, and painted. Used containers are an excellent source in that we’re extending the life of the shipping container.
Can single Jagpods be easily joined to double the interior living space?
Yes, JagPods can easily be joined together to add more livable space to the home. It really depends on how much money the customer wants to spend.
Why are you launching a container home product with solar power…have you observed demand for it?
This is a fulfillment of a life-long dream of mine that started in college. Traveling to Ghana, West Africa, and seeing the need for structurally sound housing motivated me to find a solution. For the past 20 years, Europe and Asia have led the world in building container home projects. Within the last 5 years, projects in the US have taken off. Wherever an emergency disaster occurs, we would like to make JagPods available to help solve these housing problems.
New UK international development minister Nick Hurd wants to boost off-grid solar power in the only region where those without access to modern energy is set to rise
For a man who has only recently started his job, international development minister Nick Hurd seems sure of his priorities.
“Energy Africa makes perfect sense to me,” he says. “In the next few weeks and months we’re going to be shaping what DfID [the Department for International Development] does in the next five, arguably 10 years. But improving access to energy in Africa is my particular focus at the moment.”
After spending four years as minister for civil society under the coalition government, Hurd has been parachuted into the job at DfID to replace Grant Shapps, who resigned in the midst of allegations that bullying in the Tory party had led to the death of one of its activists.
Although his new portfolio covers a range of issues including water, climate change, sanitation, education and health, his immediate priority is to “keep up the momentum” of the Energy Africa campaign launched by Shapps in October.
Hurd has his sights set on the seventh sustainable development goal: universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services by 2030. But sub-Saharan Africa is currently 50 years behind, the only region in the world where the number of people denied access to modern forms of energy is set to rise and, based on current trends, predicted to hit the goal by 2080.
Inspired by Barack Obama’s flagship Power Africa programme, Hurd hopes that Energy Africa can make a key difference. Last month the US and UK projects came together to create a new partnership to address specific issues such as the need for shared power across borders, resources for geothermal power, and to boost the number of women participating in Africa’s solar industry.
But unlike Power Africa, which has been catalysing a wide range of renewable energy projects that will connect to the national grid – from a vast solar farm in Rwanda to the first wind power project in Senegal – Energy Africa has a very specific objective: to accelerate off-grid solar power for households using private investment.
Grid investment will only reach 40% of the population and leave more than 500 million people still without electricity access in 2030,according to the Overseas Development Institute. Critics say that the impact of DfID’s campaign will be only “incremental” because the continent needs large-scale infrastructure and while NGOs push decentralisation, Africans want a grid connection.
But it is well known that these incremental changes can create significant new possibilities in the lives of individuals and communities, from lanterns that enable pupils to study at night, to mobile phone chargers, to lights for huts that keep animals safe from predators.
Hurd is adamant about the need and value of off-grid investment. “The question is: what can we do for the 60% now?” he asks. “It strikes a chord with ministers wrestling with energy access in their countries. On-grid is massively important but most of the projections suggest that’s going to take a long time and won’t reach all the population. That’s why Energy Africa is focused on household solar energy. We think there is huge potential in off-grid particularly, because we see this market developing which we think we, with partners, can turbo charge.”
A host of factors have coalesced to create what Hurd describes as a “pivotal moment” for household solar in Africa. In the past six years, the price of panels has dropped by around 70%, making it as cheap as fossil fuels in some areas. The price and quality of battery technologies is also improving fast while the spread of mobile money systems on the continent is making solar an increasingly feasible prospect for the individual householder.
Six countries have signed up to DfID’s Energy Africa campaign. Ministers from Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Somalia were the first to complete an agreement, followed by Ghana, Malawi and Rwanda. Eight other countries have been identified as potential targets, including Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Uganda.
The countries were chosen because they were “biting our hand off” says Hurd. “We are responding to demand.”
Working in fragile states is one of DfID’s explicit objectives, partly driven by national security interests. More than half its budget is committed to work in such regions, but implementing clean energy is a challenge in states grappling with terrorism and conflict, such as Nigeria and Somalia.
Problems vary from country to country, but the industry has been held back by a lack of legal and tax structures. The International Finance Corporation is currently working to establish a new set of product standards. DfID say it is its role to work out how to streamline the bureaucracy, and the specific challenges in each country are still being identified.
Providing electricity at the household level comes with additional challenges. For rural communities miles from a grid connection, energy poverty is entrenched by lack of access to financial systems. Pay-as-you-go schemes offered by mobile phones are changing this, but penetration fluctuates from country to country. DfID hopes that the campaign will be able to support non-bank financial providers to create mobile payment systems. In places where regulation makes it unfeasible, alternatives such as scratch cards will make up the difference.
The campaign is not a “traditional aid programme” says Hurd. Its aim is to galvanise private investment in countries where DfID has formed a partnership with the government. “It’s a different model,” he says. “It’s not about a huge chunk of public money; it’s not a DfID programme as such. It’s a private-sector solution to this challenge.”
But in a debate where creating clean energy is often pitted against economic development, it does not yet seem to be clear how foreign investment galvanised by the campaign will provide substantial jobs for Africans on the ground.
Although DfID has previously given seed funding to mobile money solar companies in the UK and Africa – such as Azuri Technologies and Persistent Energy Ghana – the majority of investors involved in the campaign will be foreign, with many British companies involved.
“We’re not nationalistic about this. We know it’s going to be private-sector led and we want to support entrepreneurs. At the moment most of the businesses are foreign, but over time my hope and expectation is that this will evolve. There is a hell of a lot going on in trying to increase energy access in Africa. My overriding instinct is to keep asking the question: how does this join up?”
Until a few years ago solar panels were a rare sight in South Africa, largely limited to the roofs of a few affluent households. This is changing rapidly, driven by three factors: the worldwide drive towards renewable energy, a highly strained local electricity supply, and a steady drop in solar panel prices.
Under the plan the country aims to achieve 9600 MW of solar power capacity by 2030. When the plan was drawn up in 2010, solar was limited to a few isolated panels on domestic rooftops, and until recently contributed nothing to the national power grid operated by the state-owned utility Eskom.
But that is changing.
Much easier, much cheaper
In the last ten years the defining development in solar energy has been the sharp drop in the prices of photovoltaic panels. There has also been modest technological advances in other solar technologies and in power storage.
Photovoltaics, or PV, is a process in which energy from light is absorbed in materials and then directly transferred to electrons, resulting in an electric current. Research advances over the years, especially those involving easily available silicon-based materials, have made this an increasingly cheap solar technology. It is also now the most popular.
The simplest PV configuration has immobile solar panels, slightly tilted relative to the ground and facing northwards towards the midday sun. An example is the Droogfontein Plant near Kimberley in South Africa’s Northern Cape province. Panel rows are placed in a way to ensure that each panel does not shade the one behind it.
A more sophisticated design, found at the Sishen Plant near Kathu, also in the Northern Cape, uses a single axis-tracking technology to counteract efficiency losses. Each row of panels steadily rotates along a north-south axis with the sun until it reaches a point where it starts to shade the row behind it.
In two-axis tracking systems, panels constantly face the sun squarely. The Herbert and Greefspan plants near Douglas in the Northern Cape use this technology. The cost of the additional tracking motors is compensated for by the capture of more sunlight.
Concentrated solar power
Concentrated solar power, or CSP, technologies are based on the redirecting of sunlight, normally by mirrors, to a common focal point, which as a result becomes extremely hot.
This heat is transferred by fluids to a nearby electricity generating unit, where water is boiled to drive a turbine. This is similar to the process in coal power stations where coal is burnt to generate heat.
CSP technologies include the solar tower, where a multitude of mirrors continually realign themselves to reflect sunlight to a hot spot on the tower. Khi Solar 1, under construction near Upington, is a representative of this class.
The parabolic trough technology requires long rows of concave mirrors focusing sunlight onto pipes running just above. The already operational KaXu near Pofadder uses this technology, and similar plants in Bokpoort and XiNa will be added soon. A related technology, linear Fresnel, appears in some of the proposals for future South African solar plants.
Finally, there is a hybrid technology, concentrated photovoltaics, where the collecting focal point contains a PV receiver rather than a heatable fluid. This design was used for the Touws River solar plant in the Western Cape province.
The pros and hidden cons
Solar energy almost completely avoids emissions, uses a limitless energy resource and is becoming increasingly inexpensive. As such it is promoted as a major clean contributor to solving the world’s energy crisis.
At the same time, it is important to recognise the shortcomings of solar power. Solar energy generation is only possible during daytime and in reasonably cloud-free conditions. In South Africa that corresponds to typically eight hours per day on average.
For PV, the poorer the alignment between the sun and a solar panel, the worse the efficiency. Dust build-up on a panel further blocks sunlight, and photovoltaic panels don’t function properly if even only a fraction of the surface is shaded.
The quoted power produced by a panel or a solar plant is mostly obtained under near-optimal solar exposure. And the daily average power generated is much lower.
Energy storage also remains a challenge. Despite this, solar energy remains an attractive option.
All the completed solar power plants are part of South Africa’s electricity supply as they are fully linked to Eskom’s grid. Solar power already feeds more than 1 MW onto the grid on a sunny day. This is a significant amount, and it makes it considerably less likely that the country will suffer power cuts in 2016.
Pretoria — South Africa will for the first time host the South African International Renewable Energy Conference from 4 to 7 October in Cape Town.
The conference will be held under the theme: “Re-energizing Africa”. Addressing the media in Pretoria on Saturday after the Cabinet meeting held this week, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe said the conference will profile renewable energy opportunities available in South Africa and Africa to producers of renewable power as their next investment destination.
“South Africa, through its Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme, is becoming one of the biggest markets for renewable energy,” he said. According to Minister Radebe, in future biomass, wind power, solar power and hydropower will contribute 11.4 gigawatts of renewable energy to the grid.
The Department of Science and Technology is supporting the country’s energy policies through research and technology development in low and carbon-free technologies that can be commercialized and rolled out to increase energy security and access to all South Africans.
“We are now capable of manufacturing and integrating various components into a whole range of energy generating devices for these applications that are currently undergoing testing. “The benefit of our hydrogen and fuel cell technologies Programme is the use of platinum which will also open opportunities into the automotive catalytic converter market and promote beneficiation of one of our most abundant minerals. In this regard, we have established and are strengthening our partnership with the private sector to do final tests and commercialize various components and full energy solutions,” he said.
An innovative business model combining solar power and cellphones is electrifying parts of rural Africa that are far from the grid.
It’s called M-KOPA. The “M” stands for “mobile,” and “kopa” means “to borrow.” The company’s customers make an initial deposit, roughly $30, toward a solar panel, a few ceiling lights, and charging outlets for cellphones — a system that would cost about $200. Then they pay the balance owed in installments through a widely used mobile banking service, based on how much energy they use. The solar units are cheaper and cleaner than kerosene, the typical lighting source, and once they’re fully paid for after about a year the eE is completely free. More than 200,000 homes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda use M-KOPA’s solar systems.
Creative, bottom-up solutions like M-KOPA are emerging across Africa and the developing world. Scaling them, and quickly, is the challenge. Around 1.3 billion people worldwide still lack access to electricity, including two out of three sub-Saharan Africans. An enormous divide exists between the global rich and the global poor, from energy access and technology to wealth and infrastructure. But the divide is not immutable, and momentum for solutions to bridge it are emerging from all over the world.
Later this month, the United Nations will aim to take another important step to close that gap by agreeing on Sustainable Development Goals, including goals on ending extreme poverty and ensuring adequate access to energy. It is important that the word “sustainable” has been given a prominent place in the agenda, because while many global trends are going in the right direction, one is certainly not: the climate. Without acting on climate change, we risk undermining the development gains that we have achieved so far and widening the gap between the rich and the poor. The economic growth we have seen to date will be unsustainable in the face of increasing climate disasters.
Climate change hits the poorest people the hardest. The poor are more likely than the rich to live in places vulnerable to climate-related weather events and more frequently suffer from diseases that can be exacerbated by climate change. The World Health Organization predicted last year that in 2030 climate change will lead to 48,000 additional deaths due to diarrhea, 60,000 from malaria, and 95,000 from childhood undernutrition. The vast majority of these will take place in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
It is clear that we cannot tackle poverty successfully without also tackling climate change. That’s why enterprises like M-KOPA are so important: They help to bridge the divide between the global rich and global poor in a low-carbon way. Small-scale solar is only a start. Africa attracted $8 billion of investment in renewables last year, and the International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that its potential for wind and solar power amounts to more than 1.5 trillion gigawatt hours per year. There’s plenty of room for both bottom-up innovation and top-down support for green energy.
In addition to energy access, better land use can make a real difference as well. For example, farmers in Niger are using new agroforestry techniques to produce more grain than ever before. By interplanting trees on cropland and allowing extra shrubs to grow, the farmers restore degraded land, lower greenhouse gas emissions and increase agricultural productivity. And they are directly reaping economic benefits, with gross annual incomes going up for over a million households by an average of $1,000, more than doubling real incomes.
Today this is in Niger; tomorrow, if this were global, restoring just 12 percent of degraded lands to production could raise farmers’ incomes by $40 billion per year and feed another 200 million people.
Investing in sustainable infrastructure in areas like energy, land use and cities is a no-brainer. But the biggest obstacle is coming up with the initial financing for these investments, even though we know that they will pay for themselves in the long run.
Much of the financing needs can be met through more effective mobilization of private investment. For example, a renewable energy procurement program in South Africa has mobilized $14 billion in domestic and international private financing for sustainable infrastructure. When the market fails in providing private finance, development banks can step in by providing technical assistance and guarantees. Better mobilization of countries’ own domestic resources is also critically important.
Low-carbon investment is gathering momentum around the world, and the founders of M-KOPA aren’t the only ones being creative. Investors are increasingly turning to new, more efficient forms of finance. “Green bonds” that support low-carbon and climate resilient infrastructure more than tripled in 2014 to reach $37 billion.
The global divide between the rich and the poor is far from closed. But with smarter anti-poverty and energy-access measures and a focus on sustainable finance, the future for Africa and the rest of the developing world can be bright, in more ways than one.
The buzzword in home construction today is “sustainability” – building homes that integrate with the landscape, are energy efficient and use renewable materials. And an eco-friendly home doesn’t mean sacrificing luxury or design. Whether you’re buying new construction or renovating an older home for greater efficiency, there are a few terms and concepts you should know about.
Insulation: Walls, ceilings, basements and attics are places where your home can lose energy. Options for a well-insulated house can range from specially insulated exterior walls to blown-in cellulose, from energy-reflecting cool roof systems to roof and interior attic foam insulation. Many states offer rebates or low- or no-interest loans to help you save energy and reduce heating and cooling bills. Start by calling your local utility company and asking about any programs they offer. A well-insulated house can take advantage of environmental factors to keep the temperature constant and comfortable.
Windows: Since windows are mostly glass, substantial savings in heating and cooling can come from improved glass performance. Highly efficient replacement windows can save you hundreds of dollars, but they can be very expensive. If you live in a hot climate and are interested in keeping the heat out of your home, a less expensive option may be to apply low-E film to your windows. Low-E film enhances the window’s ability to reflect heat, rather than absorb it. You can apply these films yourself or hire a contractor to handle a more complicated application. Finally, window shades are a low-tech and inexpensive way to control temperature in the home.
Solar: Passive solar depends on how your house is sited and landscaped, and how architectural features work to collect, store and distribute heat in the winter and reject heat in the summer. When passive solar features are included in the building design, they add little or no cost and can result in thousands of dollars in energy savings over the life of your home. Solar heating usually refers to technologies that collect and store energy from the sun, often using photovoltaic (battery) systems. Solar power systems can be used to generate electricity or heat water. Again, there may be local or state programs that offer incentives to buy or rent home solar energy systems.
Low (or Zero) VOC: VOC stands for volatile organic compounds, which are chemicals found in paints and flooring that can vaporize and emit gases for long periods of time. Eco-friendly paints that are low VOC emit smaller amounts of these gases and are usually odor free. Low VOC carpeting is made by many manufacturers and is attractive and comfortable.
Low-Flow Water Fixtures: Low-flow faucets, shower heads and toilets use less water per minute than traditional fixtures and conserve water by adding air into the system to produce a strong flow while using less water. Installing these devices requires an investment, but you will likely earn back your expenditure in the first year. Again, many city governments or utilities offer incentives to install these energy-saving fixtures in your older home.
Focusing on sustainable design and materials means you can make your house more comfortable and less expensive to maintain while minimizing your impact on natural resources and respecting the environment.
If current rates of improvement hold, solar power will be incredibly cheap by the time it’s a substantial fraction of the world’s electricity supply, writes famous author and thinker Ramez Naam. According to Naam, electricity cost is from now on coupled to the ever-decreasing price of technology. That is profoundly deflationary and disruptive.
It’s now fairly common knowledge that the cost of solar modules is dropping exponentially. I helped publicize that fact in a 2011 Scientific American blog post asking “Does Moore’s Law Apply to Solar Cells?” The answer is that something like Moore’s law, an exponential learning curve (albeit slower than in computing) applies. (For those that think Moore’s Law is a terrible analogy, here’s my post on why Moore’s Law is an excellent analogy for solar.)
Solar electricity cost, not solar module cost, is key
But module prices now make up less than half of the price of complete solar deployments at the utility scale. The bulk of the price of solar is so-called “soft costs” – the DC->AC inverter, the labor to install the panels, the glass and aluminum used to cover and prop them up, the interconnection to the grid, etc. Solar module costs are now just one component in a more important question: What’s the trend in cost reduction of solar electricity? And what does that predict for the future?
Let’s look at some data. Here are cost of solar Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) signed in the US over the last several years. PPAs are contracts to sell electricity, in this case from solar photovoltaic plants, at a pre-determined price. Most utility-scale solar installations happen with a PPA.
In the US, the price embedded in solar PPAs has dropped over the last 7-8 years from around $200 / MWh (or 20 cents / kwh) to a low of around $40 / MWh (or 4 cents per kwh).
The chart and data are from an excellent Lawrence Berkeley National Labs study, Is $50/MWh Solar for Real? Falling Project Prices and Rising Capacity Factors Drive Utility-Scale PV Toward Economic Competitiveness
This chart depicts a trend in time. The other way to look at this is by looking at the price of solar electricity vs how much has been installed. That’s a “learning rate” view, which draws on the observation that in industry after industry, each doubling of cumulative capacity tends to reduce prices by a predictable rate. In solar PV modules, the learning rate appears to be about 20%. In solar electricity generated from whole systems, we get the below:
This is a ~16% learning rate, meaning that every doubling of utility-scale solar capacity in the US leads to a roughly 16% reduction in the cost of electricity from new solar installations. If anything, the rate in recent years appears to be faster than 16%, but we’ll use 16% as an estimate of the long term rate.
Every industrial product and activity gets cheap
This phenomenon of lower prices as an industry scales is hardly unique to solar. For instance, here’s a view of the price of the Ford Model T as production scaled.
Like solar electricity (and a host of other products and activities), the Model T shows a steady decline in price (on a log scale) as manufacturing increased (also on a log scale).
The future of solar prices – if trends hold
The most important, question, for solar, is what will future prices be? Any projection here has to be seen as just that – a projection. Not reality. History is filled with trends that reached their natural limits and stalled. Learning rates are a crude way to model the complexities involved in lowering costs. Things could deviate substantially from this trendline.
That said, if the trend in solar pricing holds, here’s what it shows for future solar prices, without subsidies, as a function of scale.
Again, these are unsubsidized prices, ranging from solar in extremely sunny areas (the gold line) to solar in more typical locations in the US, China, India, and Southern Europe (the green line).
What this graph shows is that, if solar electricity continues its current learning rate, by the time solar capacity triples to 600GW (by 2020 or 2021, as a rough estimate), we should see unsubsidized solar prices of roughly 4.5 c / kwh for very sunny places (the US southwest, the Middle East, Australia, parts of India, parts of Latin America), ranging up to 6.5 c / kwh for more moderately sunny areas (almost all of India, large swaths of the US and China, southern and central Europe, almost all of Latin America).
And beyond that, by the time solar scale has doubled 4 more times, to the equivalent of 16% of today’s electricity demand (and somewhat less of future demand), we should see solar at 3 cents per kwh in the sunniest areas, and 4.5 cents per kwh in moderately sunny areas.
If this holds, solar will cost less than half what new coal or natural gas electricity cost, even without factoring in the cost of air pollution and carbon pollution emitted by fossil fuel power plants.
As crazy as this projection sounds, it’s not unique. The IEA (International Energy Agency), in one of its scenarios, projects 4 cent per kwh solar by mid century.
Fraunhofer ISE, the German research institute, goes farther, predicting solar as cheap as 2 euro cents per kwh in the sunniest parts of Europe by 2050.
Obviously, quite a bit can happen between now and then. But the meta-observation is this: Electricity cost is now coupled to the ever-decreasing price of technology. That is profoundly deflationary. It’s profoundly disruptive to other electricity-generating technologies and businesses. And it’s good news for both people and the planet.
Is it good enough news? In next few weeks I’ll look at the future prospects of wind, of energy storage, and, finally, at what parts of the decarbonization puzzle are missing.
Load shedding is having a severe financial impact on South African food production, according to an expert at energy efficiency firm Energy Partners.
Load shedding is having a severe financial impact on South African food production, according to an expert at energy efficiency firm Energy Partners.
According to Dawie Kriel, the head of heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration at Energy Partners, this affects not only primary food production, but also post-harvest handling and the retail sector.
“The interrupted electricity supply is costing the local food production industry millions every month and could be depriving South Africa of quality nutrition,” said Kriel.
His comments follow a plea from the South African Poultry Association earlier this month for government assistance to help them guarantee electricity supply to the nation’s biggest abattoirs as almost-daily load shedding is harming the birds’ welfare and creating health risks.
The slaughterhouses, some of which can process as many as 13 000 chickens hourly, can’t rely on generators as they aren’t able to create sufficient power for their needs, said Kevin Lovell, CEO of the poultry industry body.
Lovell told Bloomberg the birds are typically stunned unconscious by electrocution before they are decapitated while hanging upside down.
When power cuts interrupt the process, the birds “have been stunned but they haven’t been killed; they’re hanging upside down and they’re coming back alive”, he told Bloomberg.
“It’s a real problem. And it’s a huge waste problem because everything that stops in the process, sometimes hundreds of tons, has to be cleared. You have to clean and sterilise everything and then you have to dump at a medical waste site.”
Kriel said on Wednesday that the entire supply chain – from primary production through to the consumer – is impacted in one way or another, because farmers are highly dependent on electricity for key processes such as irrigation, livestock care and harvesting.
“The biggest problem for primary production is the uncertainty around the load shedding schedule. It is very difficult to halt production or manufacturing processes once they are in progress,” said Kriel.
“In the dairy industry, for example, a herd of dairy cows and the infrastructure to support milk production run predictably every day according to the animals’ biorhythms. It is not something that can be switched on and off at a moment’s notice.”
This was the same problem for the poultry industry. Lovell said while load shedding followed schedules, it was sometimes imposed at a few minutes’ notice.
Kriel said once fresh milk is in a silo it has to be treated, cooled and transported to a dairy plant for careful processing to ensure that quality and safety are maintained.
“Once in the factory, it needs to be kept at the perfect temperature and then processed through a series of heating and cooling stages to provide the milk, cheese, yoghurt, butter and many other products used daily,” said Kriel.
The cooling plant is a crucial element and a big energy user in the production process. It needs to run 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.
“While solar and wind energy can assist, it is not ideal for this type of load and has to be integrated with a form of standby power generation.”
Kriel pointed out that reliable energy is of equal importance in the post-harvest sector, as the long-term quality and safety of food products depends on accurate temperature management throughout the process.
“If this process is interrupted at any stage, the food product deteriorates in quality and cannot be sold as premium grade or worse, has to be discarded due to food safety concerns. This means food producers are losing valuable income and the country is deprived of quality nutrition,” said Kriel.
Cold chain disruption affects retail sector
Power interruptions also have an impact on the safe handling and storage of perishable foods in the retail sector.
“If the cold chain is disrupted, shelf life is affected and shop owners either have to remove affected products from their shelves or face unhappy customers who return inedible products,” he said.
“Lights, refrigeration, ovens and all other energy intensive elements must be as energy efficient as possible and energy usage must be monitored closely. Once this has been implemented, store owners can invest in standby generation and solar power, especially if they trade mostly during daylight hours,” said Kriel.