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Renewable energy continues growing into the energy mix

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South Africa’s growing renewable energy capacity surpassed the capacity of the country’s nuclear plant by some margin last year, even as the demand for power continued to fall.

The R9.4 billion solar thermal plant, Xina Solar One, near Pofadder in the Northern Cape. Picture: Supplied

SOUTH Africa’s growing renewable energy capacity surpassed the capacity of the country’s nuclear plant by some margin last year, even as the demand for power continued to fall, according to the latest energy statistics released by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

By the end of last year, South Africa had 51.6 gigawatts of wholesale/public nominal capacity, of which coal was still the biggest contributor at a nominal capacity of 37.9GW.

Load shedding due to maintenance and unplanned outages occurred for 859 hours of last year, or 9.8 percent of the period, dominated by Stage 2 load shedding with smaller contributions from other stages.

Nuclear nominal capacity was 1.9GW, while renewable wind capacity was 2.5GW, solar PV was 2GW, hydro electricity capacity was 0.6GW, and pumped storage was 2.7GW.

Diesel electricity capacity was 3.4GW, while the nominal capacity of concentrated solar plant (CSP) was 0.5GW.

During the year, 723 megawatts of coal, 415MW of wind and 558MW of solar PV became operational.

Niveshen Governder, the chief operating officer of the SA Photovoltaic Industry Association, said the CSIR data did not include capacity data of the smaller distributor generation projects where businesses, industrial companies, residences and mines generated power for their own use, which the association estimated at 1.3GW.

He said this was a sector that was growing fast, particularly in mining.

Govender said although renewable energy, particularly solar, was once driven primarily by environmental concerns, the inability of Eskom to meet demand and the declining price of solar relative to Eskom’s prices meant the decision to invest in solar for own use had also become a business decision.

On large-scale solar plants, he said the opening of the fifth window of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) in about two to three weeks was expected to see another 1GW of solar PV coming on stream.

Meanwhile, the Africa Oil & Power investment platform said on its website that an additional investment for 1.6GW of wind power was expected from the fifth window of the REIPPPP.

There are 33 wind farms at various stages of development throughout the country.

The Northern Cape is the province with the highest volume of renewable energy utility plants.

Coal energy contributed 83.5 percent of South Africa’s total demand last year and nuclear energy contributed 5.2 percent. Renewable energy contributed 10.5 percent, variable renewable energy contributed 5.6 percent, while the remaining 0.9 percent came from diesel.

System demand reduced notably last year due to the Covid-19 lockdown and resulting lower economic activity. System demand decreased 5.1 percent, while residual demand fell 5.7 percent relative to pre-lockdown forecasts.

Peak system demand last year was 34.1GW, versus 34.5GW in 2019.

The reduced system demand last year was met mostly by reduced coal (-10.4 terawatt hours) and nuclear, while others increased production, particularly solar PV and pumped storage.

Weekly residual demand under the initial lockdown in March last year saw weekly energy demand plummet by more than 20 percent for four weeks, with the biggest weekly reduction at 24.5 percent.

Over the past 10 years, South African system demand has dropped by 7.8 percent – mostly seen last year – but even without the effects of the lockdown, system demand had been on a downward trend.

For 2010 to 2020, system demand has reduced by 0.8 percent a year, and, excluding 2020, demand had reduced by an average 0.4 percent a year from 2010 to 2019.

By the end of last year, total wind, solar PV and CSP production was 5.6 percent of South Africa’s system load.

The maximum daily total energy from solar PV, wind and CSP was 59 Gigawatt hours, recorded on December 1, 2020. Wind power achieved a maximum peak power production of 2 114 megwatts between 7pm and 8pm on the same day.

The maximum instantaneous contribution of wind, solar PV and CSP was 16 percent between 3pm and 4pm on December 27.

The maximum instantaneous power contribution of wind alone was 9.6 percent between 5 and 6m on April 12, 2020.

The maximum instantaneous power contribution of solar PV alone was 7.9 percent between 12pm and 1pm on December 26.