Home Opinion and Features Eskom’s centralised power generation model is outdated

Eskom’s centralised power generation model is outdated

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OPINION: More and more experts are of the opinion that Eskom has reached the end of the road, writes Professor Louis Fourie.

Despite the deeply vested political and commercial interests in coal and Eskom, it is time that South Africa seriously accelerates the creation of alternative, environmentally-friendly energy sources, says the author. File picture: Simphiwe Mbokazi.

MORE and more experts are of the opinion that Eskom has reached the end of the road.

Not only does Eskom struggle with neglected maintenance over many years, ageing infrastructure, increasing unscheduled breakdowns, non-compliance with air pollution laws, a lack of long-term planning, the slow acquisition of alternative energy sources, a debt of billions of rand, but it also grapples with the eradication of endemic corruption and internal sabotage.

Add to this a bloated workforce overstaffed by about 66 percent, which is also one of the highest-paid in the country, and even a non-expert can determine the slim chances of the long-term survival of Eskom in its current form.

Salaries at Eskom are more than double the norm in 35 other African countries, while the staff count increased exponentially, resulting in a power capacity decrease from about 2.65 megavolt amps (MVA) per employee in 1994 to a mere 0.58 MVA in 2022. Eskom’s energy availability factor (the proportion of its plant available to dispatch energy) has also decreased from 84.5 percent in 2011 to 56 percent in 2022.

South Africa and her citizens thus urgently need to consider alternative sources and providers of energy. Due to the devastating effects of global warming, South Africa will also have to move away from the use of fossil fuels. Over the last number of years, several innovative scientific and business solutions for sustainable or renewable alternatives to coal, oil and gas have been developed.

HYDROGEN ENERGY

Although only 0.00005 percent of Earth’s atmosphere, hydrogen is one of the materials in our universe that is present in abundance in combination with other elements such as water and hydrocarbons.

What makes hydrogen very attractive is that it produces close to zero greenhouse gas emissions when burnt. In the past, the problem was, however, the use of fossil fuels (resulting in carbon emissions) to extract hydrogen from coal (brown hydrogen) and gas (grey hydrogen) and convert it into a form that can be used as fuel.

More recently, green carbon became available through a process involving electrolysis and water while electricity from renewable resources (for example, wind and solar) are used.

A number of large energy companies, such as Shell and RWE, decided to create the first major green European hydrogen pipeline from offshore wind plants in the North Sea, which should be completed by 2035. The European Union also commissioned several smaller projects to create 40GW of renewable power for green hydrogen generation by 2030.

This new fuel source has already led to many new and innovative projects, for example, a hydrogen-powered e-bike created by Dutch designers Studio MOM and Australian hydrogen fuel start-up LAVO. The US start-up ElektrikGreen developed at-home electric vehicle charging solutions using hydrogen fuel.

BIOENERGY

Another alternative to fossil energy is biofuel, or energy stemming from biomass. It is not a new technology, but in the last few years, several attempts have been made to increase its use.

Currently, thermal, chemical, and biological processes are used to develop more efficient forms of fuel from biological matter, such as wood, sugar cane, or waste materials. One of the popular methods is fermentation that is used in the production of bioethanol and biodiesel.

Bioenergy has become such a popular source of energy that the International Energy Agency predicted that bioenergy will account for 30 percent of “renewable” energy production by 2023 and could thus play an important role in the fight against global warming.

Many innovative projects have been initiated. Heineken Breweries recently decided to power its production site in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on waste rice husks produced by local farmers, while the Baltic Sea Action Group started a project this year to convert sewage waste discharged from cargo ships into biogas fuel for use in the transport industry.

Batteries have grown in importance as an energy storage device. Unfortunately, the disposal of batteries are often not done in an environmentally friendly manner.

French start-up BeFC, therefore, developed innovative paper biofuel cells that convert glucose and oxygen into electricity to create an alternative non-toxic, recyclable, and eco-friendly form of battery for use in low-power applications such as the Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and transmitters.

SOLAR, WIND and WATER

Due to the urgency to find alternatives to fossil fuels, engineering and technology has made significant progress to make the generation of renewable energy more economical, efficient, and safe.

In the field of harvesting solar, wind and water energy, major strides were made with regard to the efficiency of photovoltaic (PV) panels used for solar power generation and turbine blades used in hydro and wind power generation.

For example, the US start-up Helicoid, improved the efficiency, average downtime and frequency of replacement and repair by using innovative arrangements of structural fibres to create turbines that are stronger, more resistant to damage by environmental erosion and that are thus impacted less by structural fatigue.

One of the problems with solar energy is the relatively low conversion efficiency.

The Dutch start-up Lusoco now developed new ways to engineer photovoltaic panels using different reflecting and refracting materials, such as fluorescent ink, to focus light onto the solar cells, resulting in more efficient harvesting of energy. In addition, the panels are lighter, cheaper, less energy-intensive to produce, and easier to install.

Another innovation in material science to improve the conversion efficiency of energy, include the development of mono-crystalline silicon ingots by Norwegian Crystals. These ingots are produced via a super low-carbon hydro-power process.

DECENTRALISATION OF POWER DISTRIBUTION

Another innovation in material science to improve the conversion efficiency of energy include the development of monocrystalline silicon ingots by Norwegian Crystals. These ingots are produced via a super low-carbon hydro-power process.

This certainly increase the complexity of demand management and coordination. However, recent advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and complex algorithms make the forecasting of demand and the management of the distribution of resources much easier and ensure that power is available at the time and place it is needed with a minimum of waste (unlike Eskom’s long transmission lines with a loss of power of 8-15 percent).

This precise management and creation of an “intelligent coordination layer” that sits between the power infrastructure and homes and businesses is very important in the renewable energy industry since, currently, we cannot effectively store power for long periods of time.

The power thus has to be used as close as possible to the time and location where it is generated. However, new innovative developments in storage technology, such as the first commercial sand battery by Polar Night Energy that was opened a few days ago, may mitigate these limitations.

INNOVATION

Innovations in technology and improvements in engineering processes will be a strong trend driving increased efficiency and reliability throughout the renewable energy sector in the years to come. Despite the deeply vested political and commercial interests in coal and Eskom, it is time that South Africa seriously accelerate the creation of alternative environmentally friendly energy sources. The days of a centralised power generation and distribution system are probably numbered.

The downside of decentralisation is that with the current poor management of many municipalities and the huge electricity debt they owe to Eskom, the citizens in many towns will probably have to provide their own power, as was the case many decades ago.

* Professor Louis C H Fourie is an Extraordinary Professor University of the Western Cape.

Professor Louis Fourie

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