From rooftop solar panels to vast fields of groaning wind turbines, renewable energy is growing in Africa.
And that has utilities racing to upgrade and expand dilapidated power grids so they can carry the electricity generated by a constellation of new producers large and small.
“We’ve pushed them to be better,” says Jasandra Nyker, chief executive of BioTherm Energy Ltd., a South African solar and wind power producer.
A short learning curve is particularly critical for South Africa, where economic growth has stalled as state power company Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. races to modernize aging power plants and transmission lines whose frequent breakdowns are regularly leaving the country in the dark.
“The increased grid-capacity requirements coupled with intermittent generation inherent in renewable sources of energy requires Eskom to strategically strengthen the grid,” saysDikatso Mothae, a spokeswoman for the power company.
To get its grid up to speed, Eskom has spent $180 million upgrading its network of transmission stations and strung hundreds of miles of high-voltage power lines to more than 40 private wind and solar plants.
From desert to city About 4% of South Africa’s 43,000 megawatts of generating capacity comes from renewable sources. The government wants to triple the total to some 6,000 megawatts by 2020.
South Africa is one of the richest countries in the world when it comes to renewable potential, from the blustery Atlantic Coast around Cape Town to the sun-drenched fringes of the Kalahari Desert. The country’s sunniest stretches receive more than twice the annual solar radiation that reaches Northern Europe, where solar power has gained popularity in recent years.
But South Africa’s sunniest province, the Northern Cape, is 500 miles from Johannesburg, the country’s economic engine and top energy consumer. Getting solar energy from the desert to customers in the city is the biggest challenge facing Eskom.
“The grid has to be strong enough to transport that energy to somewhere it’s useful,” saysBernard Bekker, a consultant for Energy Partners, a Cape Town-based company whose business installing rooftop photovoltaic units has grown more than threefold in the past year.
A model in progress Some energy investors say the partnership between the state utility and independent power producers in South Africa could be a model for other African governments. “In the rest of Africa, interest in renewables is accelerating,” says Ms. Nyker of BioTherm. “Hopefully they will take a look at the success Eskom has had here.”
Many countries are still at the drawing-board stage of designing the mix of power generation and grid capabilities that they hope will light up a continent where reliable power is rare.
Ultimately, grids will need to be sophisticated enough to handle different kinds of renewable-power generation—not only massive corporate wind farms and solar-panel clusters but also the solar panels powering individual homes, says Nasi Rwigema, a director at Solafrica Energy, a Johannesburg-based investor in renewable-energy systems.
That means that grids will have to be able to absorb any excess power generated by home solar panels. That capability not only gives the grid access to more power, it also makes solar a more attractive option for homeowners, since any power they feed into the grid reduces their power bills.
Ms. Mothae, the Eskom spokeswoman, says the utility has a long-term plan to make the grid capable of handling such home power-generation systems.
If grids can’t accept excess power from homes, Mr. Rwigema warns, many people who can afford to might install home solar units anyway and simply go off the grid, reducing the utilities’ revenue.
“They’ll lose some of their best customers” along with a source of power, Mr. Rwigema says.
Mr. McGroarty is a Wall Street Journal reporter in Johannesburg.
Source: The Wall Street Journal