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OPINION: Of waste and vacuum – the cost of future energy

Bheki Gila says it should be borne in mind that the energy space of our country is not a gaping vacuum. Photo: Supplied

Bheki Gila says it should be borne in mind that the energy space of our country is not a gaping vacuum. Photo: Supplied

Published Sep 2, 2018


CAPE TOWN – The global discourse relating to sources of energy, the pricing of energy units and the attending distributive social justice, is an expression of national power, of resolve and accordingly, of the ability of the sovereign to take economic decisions that directly affect its citizens. 

Often, it relates to those energy matters that perpetually keep governments and their subjects in a powerful hold of debilitating poverty. Energy being the primary economic input, means any such discourse, requires a government with sufficient resolve to arrange, structure and conduct a conversation with itself involving as it should, its institutions of higher learning and intelligentsia to determine those priorities which must respond to the urgent preoccupation of the national collective. 

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A proclivity to submit to our political instincts a matter both so complex and somewhat technical, would commingle its urgency with an eclectic mix of mind boggling vicissitudes. Politicizing such issues hardly precipitates swift and determinative conclusion. 

Politics are powerful and famous for a range of reasons. They do not however lend speed and technical efficiency to execution. There are adequate exemplars for reference that do not deserve recounting in this piece.

As it were, the qualitative development of a nation’s economy often depends on how it sources its energy, what economic model influences its pricing structure, and along the value chain of its coverage, to what extent does it sustain the education system for those intended to patronize its institutions of learning from the lower to the higher. 

It should be borne in mind however that the energy space of our country is not a gaping vacuum. It is occupied by forces big and small, both seen and unseen, mostly the latter. Such forces would be represented by lobbyists churning out copious volumes of ersatz research with dubitable outcomes. 

For in truth, whenever there is a perception however so slight, that a new initiative is likely to perturb those profitable interests they represent tending to challenge their dominance over the space, the lobbyists’ duty is to pitch blood letting battles to the most bitter end . As our chequered political history continues to unfold, the discussion relating to energy options becomes unavoidable. 

The options are not many. And simply by laws of attrition, different epochs churn out different opportunities that help us define different options. As they do, older versions brought about by circumstances that have been rendered irrelevant by the passage of time, become obsolescent. From wood to candles to gas lamps and now to the dominance of electricity, we stand on the fringes of a fascinating debate.

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This then leads to us to a familiar matrix that dictates that the best source of electricity as the most used form of energy must derive from naturally occurring factors, and where possible, renewable without the intervention of human inputs. It must for all intents and purposes be available at all times of the day and through the years and the seasons. 

The mechanics of converting such source from original state if we can help it, must be based from the most price competitive among its technology contemporaries. Where possible, it must be accessible to all geographic locations extending with equal economic efficacy from urban to rural and from the industrial to the peri-urban as the case may be. It’s main delivery attribute must be measured by its qualitative advantages to the environment. And we behoove as we must, to consider the intensity factor as we compute our options.

Taken together, these attributes can scarcely be found on any singular source of electricity. In practice, each source within a defined category has got its own idiosyncratic genetic imprint that may register positives as well as negatives. 

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And in a paradox that gives definitional context to the utilitarian value of most things if not all, no single source befits all situations, nor is capable of distributing equal benefits demanded by the efficiency matrix described above. We are forced to consider the utility of each according to its own make-up and therefore its impact or lack thereof. 

Electricity is the first energy output that gave us different options for sources. Water, coal, nuclear, diesel, petrol, wind, solar, ocean waves, and so the list goes on. And in its wake, it wrought with it the renewable or non- renewable debate. Above all, it is fanned by the imperatives of economic viability and, as the circumstances demand, sustainability or otherwise of each of the category of sources and their impactfulness on the social environment and the material health of the citizens overall.

Of the many forms of sources for electricity, five are worth considering notwithstanding the fact that there are other particular sources like geothermal power and man-made dams. For the former, the impact is too localized and may not have adequate reach with mass appeal. The latter however competes with other life’s necessities, and its efficiency has always been measured against its impact on the environment. 

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It is exercabated by other countervailing and disturbing trends in the seasons and their precipitation patterns. Abnormal has become the new virtue. It is not raining much where it used to. Contrariwise, torrents tend to deposit their deluge payload in places where it is hardly certain they will return.

Tabulating the five options commencing from the bottom, starts with the ocean wave. It comes with enormous advantages accounting to constant winds and the pull of the lunar gravity. Their gross capability of producing electricity has yet to be fully appreciated. And so is the extent to which they can be justly distributed across vast territories of our motherland. Both of these variables remain academic mootpoints. 

But it is not adequate reason to count ocean wave out as an alternative. Occupying the fourth and third rungs up the energy ladder, are wind and solar respectively. From the ESKOM electricity supply crisis, its uneasy relationship with labour guilds and a sovereign state getting increasingly poorer, we have learnt some practical lessons out of which we can contrive certain theses. First, households, public amenities and traffic lights consume approximately 35% of electricity supplied through the grid. 

If these statistics are accurate or even near accurate, there is no reason why households should continue to feed from the grid. This is because households and public amenities do not represent a significant portion of our productive economy. Therefore wind and solar energies must take us off the dependency. 

This would have three major benefits. First, Eskom would have windfall capacity. Second, households and public amenities are more politically volatile. With houses and other public amenities off the grid, municipalities would find it less burdensome to collect their tribute from corporations and accordingly, their default levels would suddenly drop. 

Third, a significant amount of personal responsibility shall be shifted to the individual household. It is inconceivable that violent public outbursts will vent their umbrage by burning their own houses and vandalize their own roofs. This may mean that all rural and peri-urban dwellings should be prioritized for this purpose. With enough incentive all South African households can be off the grid in a decade.

The second best form of energy option in the efficiency matrix is nuclear energy. For the record, the 2018 Integrated Resource Plan tabulated before Parliament, has settled it that there shall be no expansion of nuclear facilities in this current administration. 

And that is final. 

In the same vein, it has not determined that the current nuclear facilities in Koeberg must be destroyed. Therefore, in recognition of their continuity, nuclear energy is an option for no other reason than the fact that it is an existentialist South African reality whose presence is hard to ignore. 

After all, since its inception, it has functioned just fine. We have the technological means including the intellectual resources to undertake the obligations imposed by its inherent complexities . We may need to if we are so minded, to restrain our impulses of endless remonstrations about its utility which in the past have led to discussions completely unrelated to our capabilities. 

The concerns about financial affordability are genuine and cannot be ignored. Funding such ventures is extremely costly and for that reason is an important aspect in the same way there is consciousness about ignominious wastage in other areas of public administration and financial management, including graft running into billions of Rand year in and year out. 

It should also be possible to talk about nuclear from its efficiency delivery point of view, all the while mindful of the fact that the public scales have tilted towards the narrow end of that possibility. It must be said however that nuclear energy continues to be the only casualty of fake news, distortions, extreme polarization of views, mob lynching and many other forms of cannibalism. 

I am reminded that Dr Pali Lehohla has been calling for Statistics SA to be elevated into a constitutional body which will be the final arbiter of contesting public facts. With such guarantees in place, we may finally know whether or not we can complete the country’s research on production of low enriched helium fed nuclear technology. 

To be sure, completing a research initiative is not the same as building nuclear facilities. Not completing it, having spent billions of Rand down the line, is a monumental waste of resources. Alongside it, must be the accompanying research of how to fund it and implement it cost effectively. Nuclear research and its outcomes is our common heritage as South Africans as are the Gas-to-Liquids and Coal-to-Liquids facilities, two enterprises which were hopelessly unaffordable at the time of their conception. Fat chance! They would lynch the fact checkers too!

The Holy Grail, however, is Electromagnetic Energy. T.E Bearden reckons that the only viable option is to depend on developing systems which extract energy directly from the vacuum and are therefore self-powering and like windmill in the wind, initiate continuous and powerful electromagnetic winds from the vacuum at will. 

By so doing, we can produce the necessary electromagnetic energy wind flow in any amount required, whenever and wherever we wish, for peanuts..! But as we know, we haven’t planned for that yet. The closest cousin to a holy grail, is the Desalination to Power. With melting ice caps and rising ocean levels, there is need to utilize so much of the ocean water for portability, commerce and electricity. 

This option ticks all the major boxes. It is always available. As a matter of fact, it is raining every second of every hour in some part of the vast, vast ocean, especially because there is but one large body of water given different names in different political settings. And ocean water does not portend the same difficulties of sourcing as other forms. However, before we trivialize the option with oversimplifications, holy grails, if ever there are any, need not be cheap. If they would be, buyer beware. For in truth, nothing could be cheaper than a sulphur churning, carbon dioxide puffing, cough inducing and acid rain dropping asphyxiating black smoke of cheap coal.

How about waste-to-energy? 

‘Tis’ an avenue I should fear to tread in. So much of powerful South Africa is deeply invested in making sure change does not take place. And when it does, does not do so easily, and not without its benevolence neither, even when the benefits of collecting waste for this purpose are demonstrably apparent. Not only do we have to collect fiercely, regularly, sorting and keeping our living areas aesthetically pleasing and healthy, but we could also employ massive numbers from among the least employable for relatively decent wages as Energy Practitioners.! Only government can lead this venture.

I have not mentioned the advantages of LNG imported as natural gas or as we call it in our parlance, shale gas. But then again, in the idiom of my forbears, it is rude to interrupt people busy fighting for things you do not know about.

Ambassador Bheki Gila is a Barrister at Law.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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