Wind energy has experienced exponential growth in South Africa over recent years. From the country having just eight wind turbines in 2008, it now has around 400 operational and many more on the way. Tasked with managing and regulating this dynamic industry is the South African Wind Energy Association, known as SAWEA.
Winds of change
The association began in 1998 as a non-profit organisation ran purely by volunteers, with the same basic aim as it has today: to facilitate and promote wind power in South Africa. It was at around the same time that the Darling Wind Farm was initiated to demonstrate wind energy’s viability. However, proper recognition of the technology’s potential was still a long way off, as SAWEA CEO Johan van den Berg explains.
“For a long time, all the Darling Wind Farm demonstrated was how difficult such a development was – mostly because the regulatory regime was not designed for wind power,” he says. “There were many disparate decision makers who didn’t necessarily understand they were all part of one team who had to work together. So it took a long time, and that’s why I liken the Southern African wind sector to a rocket launch after a long countdown.”
SAWEA persisted in its mission, and eventually a wind energy industry began to emerge in around 2009. The association managed to establish a permanent office with some paid staff in 2011. It was perfect timing, as it was just before the South African government launched its Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Program (REIPPPP) with which to stimulate renewable energy development in the country.
The REIPPPP kindled a period of rapid energy infrastructure development, which included wind farms. Johan says the last five years have seen marked change in not only the prevalence of wind energy, but people’s perceptions of it too.
“Many people I spoke to this year at SAWEA’s annual wind energy conference, Windaba, said they had been sceptical of wind energy in 2011, but changed their minds after seeing how it had contributed to the country’s power stability. I think that indicates that people within the energy industry, at least, have come to understand the role of wind power in this country.”
Today there are 13 fully operational wind farms in South Africa, feeding 953 megawatts into the national grid. This follows three bidding rounds of the REIPPPP, where large-scale renewable energy projects were awarded to the developers with the best business proposal – often including the lowest tariff. The process has helped drive costs lower and lower, to the extent that the price of wind energy in the recently concluded Round 4(a) was R619 per megawatt-hour – almost 40% cheaper than the price of energy forecast for Eskom’s new-build coal plants Medupi and Kusile.
Renewable energy projects such as wind farms are also much faster to build than power plants running on fossil fuels, averaging a construction time of less than two years. All these factors considered, it’s unsurprising that South Africa is embracing renewable energy such as wind. And this makes SAWEA more important than ever.
SAWEA fulfils its role in facilitating and promoting wind energy in South Africa through 10 working groups, focused on different areas and populated by more than 100 volunteers. These are:
Each group investigates and advocates for best practice in their focus area, helping to ensure the benefits of wind energy are maximised, the challenges addressed, and the harm minimised or eliminated.
Some of the most exciting work, says Johan, is happening in the Communities for Wind working group. This group arose out of SAWEA being asked to become custodian of the wind energy industry’s socioeconomic and enterprise development aspects.
“All companies operating in South Africa have to put a small percentage of their revenue into socioeconomic and enterprise development within a 30-mile radius of their operations,” Johan explains. “For the wind industry, it’s estimated that this will amount to US$500 million being spent on communities near wind farms over the next 20 years. So it presents a massive opportunity to improve people’s lives, and we seek to maximise its impact.”
SAWEA does this by talking with wind developers and helping them to optimise their community development plans. Sometimes this means convening discussions between numerous developers whose plans overlap, in order to prevent conflict and maximise benefit.
While SAWEA has welcomed the wind industry’s growth, it has simultaneously felt the pressure of meeting increasing demands and responsibilities. Johan says he’s pleased with what’s been achieved so far, but that there’s still a lot of work to do.
“From a small resource base we’ve managed to quickly create the structures to serve the rapidly growing wind energy industry, to the extent that now we’re probably 80% of what we ultimately need to be,” says Johan. “I think we’ll finally catch up over the next 12 months.”
Further challenges lie ahead. One will be working with the government to expand and stabilise the national grid so that it can cope with vast amounts of new, clean energy flowing into it. Another will be ensuring a balance is maintained between foreign investment and national involvement, so that South African developers of renewable energy can thrive.
In the meantime, the wind energy industry will continue to grow. The Round 1 REIPPPP projects are now all operational, while the Round 2 projects are all either commissioned or built. Many of the Round 3 projects are under construction and the preferred bidders of Round 4 have just been announced (see box). Three of the five wind projects occupy the upper cap of 140 megawatts capacity, which is very large by international standards.
Johan says that this is just the beginning, “South Africa’s 2010 Integrated Resource Plan (2010-2030) calls for 17,800 megawatts of renewable energy to be in place by 2030; that equals more than one fifth of the county’s predicted demand,” he says.
“SAWEA’s projection is that we’ll probably have 6,000 megawatts of wind power by 2020.”
+27 (0) 11 214 0664