Smoke rises above wind turbines at the Silver Fire near Palm Springs, California August 8, 2013. Firefighters gained ground against a wind-whipped California wildfire that has destroyed 15 buildings, injured at least five people and forced the evacuation of 500 homes in several small communities east of Los Angeles. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENVIRONMENT DISASTER ENERGY)

Cape Town - The massive quantities of shale gas produced through fracking in the US and efforts to export this gas world-wide pose a threat to the renewable wind energy industry.

This warning came on Wednesday from Steve Sawyer, secretary-general of the Global Wind Energy Council, in his welcoming address to Windaba 2013 – the third wind energy industry conference and exhibition presented jointly by the council and the SA Wind Energy Association that is taking place at the Cape Town International Convention Centre this week.


Sawyer said the wind energy sector had experienced “a very good year” in 2012. “Our 16-year average growth rate is still well up into double figures and was at almost 20 percent last year, although that’s not going to be the case this year. We’re well over 300 gigawatts as we speak now.” (A gigawatt is one billion watts)

Since 1999, the council’s long-term goal had been to get somewhere between 10 percent and 12 percent of global electricity supply from wind energy by 2020.

That target had been on track by 2010 but efforts had fallen behind since then, Sawyer said.

“But we’re still looking at somewhere between seven percent and eight percent of global electricity supply by 2020, and 11 percent and 12 percent is not quite out of reach but it’s getting close to (being) that.”

Sawyer noted that the International Energy Agency was referring to the “golden age of gas” with the promise of “plentiful, clean and wonderful natural gas” produced by fracking.

“Well, it’s not so golden, it’s not so cheap, and it’s certainly not very clean. But it’s become something of a sacred cow in the US and they’re trying to export it globally, and it could be a serious problem for us (renewable wind energy industry).”

Measurements from a fracked gas field in Utah showed that even if this gas was used to generate electricity in the most efficient modern plants, “in terms of total greenhouse gas emissions you’d be better off burning coal”.

This was because of large quantities of leaking methane, which is a greenhouse gas at least 25 times more potent per molecule than carbon dioxide in its greenhouse effect, Sawyer explained.

“They have methane leakage rates of somewhere between seven and nine percent in that gas field. It’s different in every gas field, but it’s something to think about – saviour of the climate it (fracked shale gas) certainly is not.”

He pointed out that Ethiopia was ahead of South Africa in terms of installed wind energy generation capacity. “But I don’t expect that to last very long. I guess you will catch up very quickly,” he said.

Sawyer, who noted that Windaba was becoming “a significant stop on the global wind energy circuit”, said the renewable energy sector as a whole was facing some “serious challenges”.

Last year, “for the first time in a long time”, overall investment in renewable energy was down, to $244-billion from $279bn the previous year. In 2010, this investment was $227bn and in 2009, $168bn.


“The good news of course is that outside of the OECD (the 34-nation Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the numbers are in fact rising, and South Africa is beginning to make a difference in those total numbers and will make a much bigger difference going forward,” he said.

He pointed out that a report released this year said the percentage of all forms of renewable energy in total global energy use was now 19 percent – up one percent from a year ago. The UN target was to double that by 2030 – “and according to statistics we are well on the way, but it’s not going to be easy”. - Cape Argus