I recently travelled to South Africa which, for me, highlighted the contrast between the developed and developing worlds in a beautifully humbling way. And humbling it should be, for those of us concerned about the consequences of climate change, because it is those in the developing world who are at most risk from rising sea levels and extreme temperatures. The developed world will find solutions to climate change as they arise using their wealth. Of course vast resources will be needed, but there is nothing stopping us from moving to higher ground when sea levels rise and rebuilding our lives there. The masses in the developing world won’t have this luxury.
The irony is that the lion’s share of the responsibility for climate change up until now lies with the developed world, which has enjoyed the benefits of seemingly unconstrained economic growth – benefits that the majority of people in the developed world have yet to share. Before this trip I was of the opinion that the developed world needed to change its infrastructure and economic models to those of low carbon in part to lead by example so the developing world wouldn’t make our mistakes, compounding climate change. It would be hypocritical to say “we can have coal power, but you can’t”. For example, Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that in India, by 2040 coal will provide 42% of energy supply in that country. This will bring electricity access to some 400 million Indians who currently lack it, but at what cost? BNEF predict a 160% rise in emissions from India’s energy infrastructure by 2040. Luckily these predictions are just that – predictions. We can change that path, and South Africa is a great example of how in some cases the developing world is doing better than we are on the energy problem.
Driving along the Garden Route from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town I came across several wind farms all effectively sited next to load centres. To be fair the Eastern Cape is one of the windiest places in the world but we have plenty of wind in Australia and far fewer wind farms. One particularly interesting wind farm is next to a town called Jeffrey’s Bay near Port Elizabeth which is striking in part because of how close it is to the town.
It’s a 138 MW farm capable of supplying 100,000 homes. Since it’s situated right next to a load centre which requires almost half of its output, the power it generates doesn’t have to travel very far to be used. This means low transmission losses and the excess generated is pumped in to the grid to be used in nearby towns.
Despite some opposition to the wind farm based on audio and visual pollution, resistance to the wind farm has been low compared to that experienced in Australia. South Africa doesn’t have a “Wind Farm Commissioner” whose modus operandi is to shut down the industry. There are many great reasons for the success of renewables in South Africa and we in Australia can learn from them.
It’s ludicrous to dwell on the -as yet – unproven health effects of wind turbines when without them, there would be no energy. Whilst in South Africa I experienced two extended black outs. These often occur due to load shedding because there simply isn’t enough energy to go around or the network can’t handle the demand (source). It’s even become a selling point for shops which have invested in a generator!
Here in Australia we’ve been spoilt by decades of blackout-free energy supply. I can’t remember experiencing a black out since 1998 during a storm! Credit must go to all those who work to keep our energy systems running. We pay for it, too, with some of the highest energy prices in the world. But as a result we take energy security for granted. We simply couldn’t imagine our hospitals, A/C and lights not working, and luckily we don’t need to. Not so for many parts of the world, so when they’re offered a cheap, reliable and effective energy source, they take it and run with it.
And this is not due to lack of resources. South Africa is rich in coal and and historically that’s been their fuel of choice. In fact, driving along a freeway east of Johannesburg, coal mines and coal-fired power stations are all one can see.
The reality is, it makes economic and environmental sense to install wind and solar rather than burning their coal reserves – and this is the critical driver. Indeed, The World Bank has loaned Eskom (South Africa’s public utility) millions of dollars to improve its energy security in a sustainable way which has led to the development of large renewable energy projects. If The World Bank’s analysts believe these loans are serviceable, that’s a clear sign in itself!
Converting South Africa’s energy system to one of low carbon is not just important for our changing climate, though. The effects of emissions from coal fired power stations on human health are massive. These include serious impacts on our respiratory, cardio-vascular and neurological health, and globally coal burning is estimated to be responsible for 200,000 deaths annually. What’s worse is coal power stations are usually situated in lower socio-economic areas which, in the developing world, means the consequences of our consumption are left to those who aren’t consuming much, and that’s highly inequitable.
Historically, where base-load power is needed there haven’t been many options as economically and technologically appealing as coal power. Even just a decade ago wind and solar energy were far too expensive (compounded by their intermittency) to be a viable alternative, so it makes sense that coal was the fuel of choice. But now we do have alternatives. The levelised cost of wind and solar energy have absolutely plummeted in the last decade, as has the cost of gas. With the technological improvements in energy storage to boot, conventional coal power is – and should be – very much the energy source of yesteryear. There is room for cleaner coal and gas generation as transition fuels but we need to be careful to ensure they are dispatched less, as truly renewable energy sources become more accessible.
Now that we have cost competitive and technologically sound alternatives to fossil fuels, I believe it’s time for policy to be the driver. Some regions have taken the lead on this front with almost one third of Germany powered by renewables, driven by aggressive national policy. Even China, with it’s strong reliance on coal power is getting the message having this week suspended approvals for new coal power stations. Local government has a large role to play, too, with the city of San Francisco this week stipulating that all new buildings under 10 stories have to be fitted with solar panels. This is fantastic but I’d love to see laws of this kind implemented throughout both the developed and developing worlds. This would not only bring electrification to the millions of people worldwide currently lacking, but with emissions free technology too!
The important message here is that we need to appreciate that reliable energy is a privilege, not a right and many simply don’t have it. So instead of squabbling over NIMBY ideals or proselytising that “coal is good for humanity“, how about we work together to transition to a clean, reliable energy system as quickly as possible. It just might keep our heads above water.