Cape Town - South Africa’s new wind power industry is booming, courtesy of government support through its renewable energy procurement programme.
And while communities living alongside wind farms stand to benefit hugely, getting the right mechanisms in place to ensure that mandatory benefits accrue to affected communities is the “Holy Grail” of the burgeoning industry.
This was the word from the SA Wind Energy Association (Sawea), to coincide with Global Energy Day that was celebrated on Sunday.
Global Wind Day, inaugurated in 2007 under the name Wind Day, is organised by the European Wind Energy Association and the Global Wind Energy Council and aims to coordinate events and information-sharing by national wind energy associations and companies.
In its assessment, Sawea said South Africa had an “impressive” wind energy development programme, thanks to the government’s renewable energy independent power producers’ procurement programme that involved private investors bidding competitively to build wind farms and sell the power to Eskom.
In 2011 there were eight wind turbines in the country but today five wind farms were in full operation, 15 more were under construction and a further seven were about to reach financial closure. Together, these would provide 1 983 megawatts of power to the national grid.
The industry could also “proudly highlight” the billions in benefits that would accrue to neighbouring communities from wind farms, Sawea said.
The procurement system was designed to ensure that each utility-scale wind farm invested a percentage of its revenue in socio-economic development – and in some cases enterprise development – in the surrounding area. Collectively, wind farms already built or in the pipeline would invest over R5 billion from their revenue into socio-economic and enterprise development over the next 20 years.
In addition, a shareholding of 5 percent to 40 percent in each wind farm had to be allocated to an entity representing local residents within a 50km radius, and the revenue percentage and dividends from the shares in the farm would benefit the local economies and residents over the 20-year life of the wind farms.
In a blog headed “The search for the Holy Grail: Getting community development right,” Sawea chief executive Johan van den Berg said the issue of exactly how community-accrued funds would be managed by an independent entity represented by respected community members had been a recurring theme at the recent inaugural “Getting Community Development Right” workshop.
“There was a recognition that the challenge is multi-faceted and daunting... The best and perhaps only opportunity to get it generally right is the first one.”
Two post-graduate students were researching commitments by wind farm developers to communities and the implementation of these commitments, and they had reported their initial findings to the workshop.
“This will be the first of many ongoing discussions on how to ensure communities get the most out of the funds available to them.”
Sawea chairwoman Dipolelo Elford said South Africa had “every reason to be proud of its burgeoning wind industry”.
“Not only has it embraced an impressive procurement system which has ensured highly competitive energy prices, but the contribution these developments will make to community development and socio-economic improvements is rivalled by none.”
Turbines given a green light
In environmental terms, nothing is free, not even the wind – but the green cost of harnessing this essentially pollution-free energy source can be paid back quickly.
This is what US researchers found when doing an environmental life-cycle assessment of 2MW wind turbines with a 20-year lifespan, proposed for a large wind farm in the US Pacific Northwest.
They reported in the International Journal of Sustainable Manufacturing that the net environmental benefit would materialise within five to eight months of the turbines’ installation.
Even the “worst-case” scenario would see the turbines’ environmental cost paid off after just one year, meaning that they would then each generate essentially pollution-free energy, enough to power more than 500 households for 19 years.
Although wind as a power source produces essentially zero carbon emissions, energy is consumed in manufacturing, installing, maintaining and – ultimately – decommissioning wind turbines, so there is a carbon cost involved, say authors Karl Haapala and Preedanood Prempreeda of Oregon State University in a media summary of their paper.
Their life-cycle assessment looked at the sourcing of key raw materials used in turbine construction – steel, copper, fibreglass, plastics, concrete and other materials – and at transport, manufacturing, installation, ongoing maintenance through the anticipated two decades of useful life, and the impacts of final recycling and disposal.
They found that most of the environmental impacts would be caused by materials production and manufacturing.
But in terms of “cumulative energy pay-back”, or the time to produce the amount of energy required of production and installation, a wind turbine with a working life of 20 years would offer a net benefit within about six months, or one year at worst. - Cape Argus