South African scientists say they could build sea-power generators in two years if they have money and backing from the government.

On Thursday, at a workshop to show the eThekwini municipality’s plan to partner US firm Hydro Alternative Energy (HAE) in building a R155 million “blue energy” development off the KZN coast, scientists said the research and technological know-how were available in the country.

They cautioned against importing technology that was unsuitable for local conditions.

The city has reached an advanced stage in its negotiations with HAE on building an offshore unit in the next two years that would use the Agulhas current to generate electrical power.

The pilot unit is expected to produce one megawatt of power and, if successful, could be developed to supply all the city’s electricity needs.

The Agulhas current, which is 100km wide and has its origins far north of the Isimangaliso World Heritage site, can flow at 75 million cubic metres of water a second. It is considered one of the most stable currents in the world.

“The research has been done, the know-how exists,” said Professor Wikus van Niekerk, director of the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies at the University of Stellenbosch.

“Using local expertise we could build a development unit – designed for South African conditions, using South African engineers – in two years.

“One of the biggest challenges for the development of renewable energy… is the Department of Energy. They’re understaffed and under-resourced. It is not a priority. If we had R155m we could do what the Americans are proposing to do here.”

Dr Mike Roberts, from the Department of Environmental Affairs’ oceans and coasts section, who is working on an Eskom project off the coast of East London to measure the potential of the Agulhas current to produce electricity, said although the proposal presented by HAE had merit, he agreed with Van Niekerk.

“Given the correct funding we would have a prototype in the water already,” he said.

“But KZN is leading the way. We have the biggest energy reserve to power the whole of South Africa, the ocean. If KZN can show the government we need such a programme, and if it can get the demonstration model going, I believe it will kick-start action nationwide.”

Spokeswoman for Environmental Affairs Thandiwe Maimane, confirmed that the department was not involved in research relating to ocean-generated energy, but denied “categorically” that it was understaffed or lacked resources.

“It is a new department… the 500-plus staff are highly qualified,” she said.

Russell Curtis, from the Durban Investment Promotion Agency, said that the deal with HAE showed how seriously alternative energy sources were being taken by the city. He called on the government to give it support.

“At the moment ocean-generated power is not mentioned in the national integrated research plan,” said Curtis.

“We know that wind and wave power is viable in the Eastern and Western Cape, and solar energy in the Northern Cape. Here we have ocean power and we want to make sure we can harness it.

“The Agulhas current is unique in a global sense – it’s our future coalfield.” - The Mercury