Archive by Author - John Gartner

Developing Nations’ Carbon Conundrum

by on December 18, 2008 at 10:09 am

World leaders have reached consensus on the need to go on a carbon diet to combat climate change, and most are acting to reduce their respective greenhouse gas emissions. Global emissions are expected to continue to rise, however, with much of the net increase coming from developing nations that are not subject to the landmark Kyoto Protocol agreement.

While G-8 nations may want developing countries to follow their lead in pledging to cut emissions within the next decade, the distinctive energy environments in South Africa and other growing nations make it much more challenging to make similar commitments.

Like its developing counterparts of China and India, South Africa, from where I recently returned after a 10-day tour, wants a first world standard of living, and therefore a first-class power grid that encompasses the entire nation. Unlike the U.S.’ patchwork of utilities, South Africa has one major utility, Eskom, that is wholly-owned by the government.

You might think that having a single entity providing more than 95 percent of its power would make it easy for a nation to transition to renewable power and to introduce energy-efficient technologies. However, the economics of cheap energy from coal, a lack of competition, and government inaction are impeding South Africa’s desire to cut carbon emissions.

Eskom is expanding service to many of South Africa’s rural communities that have little to no power for homes. According to a 2006 report by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, 41.9 percent of South African households were “unelectrified” in 2001.

The utility is having trouble meeting existing demand, which has been increasing by approximately 3 percent per year. Providing power to new customers, many which are great distances from the coal-rich areas where power is produced, requires not only more coal power plants, but also significant investments in transmission infrastructure to reach them.

In January 2008, Eskom resorted to rolling blackouts because it could not produce enough power. “We effectively shut down the South African economy because of concerns about a national blackout,” said Steve Lennon, Eskom’s managing director of corporate services.

Keeping the power on and affordable for the industries that are driving South Africa’s surging economy — gold, diamond, and platinum mining, telecommunications and auto manufacturing — is a federal priority, even if it means further tapping into the nation’s abundant coal reserves. To meet the expected demand, Eskom is building additional coal power plants and bringing shuttered plants back online.

More than 90 percent of South Africa’s electricity comes from coal, and that energy mix (which includes one nuclear power plant) is highly unlikely to change anytime soon. The country has among the cheapest energy in the world, with customers paying about one-fifth as much as those in developed nations, and the government has no intention of derailing the country’s hard fought economic progress by substantially raising the cost of power.

However, keeping the price low, and therefore limiting Eskom’s revenue stream, means there’s less money to invest in clean energy projects.

Even with the rapid advancements in energy efficiency and recent mass production of wind and solar power components, renewables can’t come close to competing with coal’s average price of 2 cents per kilowatt hour, according to Lennon.

Only a hefty carbon tax could help to tilt the playing field towards clean energy. The South African government is taking its first steps in that direction, as Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk announced a “small” carbon tax this summer that would likely begin in early 2009 and increase in size over time.

The South African government is also expected to pass feed-in tariff legislation in 2009 that would pay producers of renewable energy an incentive for delivering power to the grid. While Eskom will receive wind and solar power from these “independent power producers,” the company is not likely to develop its own wind or solar farms in the immediate future, according to Lennon. He does not believe in subsidies, saying that clean power needs to “stand on its own two feet” and only be undertaken when it is cost-competitive with coal power. Lennon expects several years of lag between when the feed-in tariffs are passed and when any renewable resources go online.

First Steps Towards Improving Sustainability

Because of South Africa’s continued industrialization and expansion of residential electrification, Eskom expects to double power production by 2025, which because of the country’s use of coal, makes a reduction in carbon emissions impossible. After that time, Eskom, which is among the top 20 entities in greenhouse gas emissions, expects to slowly start reducing emissions, according to environmental manager Dave Lucas. For now the focus is on reducing demand and the carbon intensity of electricity generation, he said.

However, South Africa has a relatively modest carbon footprint compared to developed nations, according to data from the United Nations. The country ranks 41st in the world in per capita CO2 emissions, with less than half (9.19 metric tons per year) the output of the U.S. However, its reliance on coal for both electricity and transportation (through coal to liquids fuel that powers a majority of vehicles) places the country well ahead of China (91st) and India (133rd).

Eskom, which has more than 500 people working in its climate change group, is working to clean up its coal operations and to change customer behavior to be more energy efficient. Lucas said the company can shave off about 3000 megawatts of demand by 2011 by working with customers.

Instead of preemptory climate change tactics that would begin to reduce emissions by phasing in renewable energy, Eskom and the government are focusing on “long term mitigation strategies” to prepare for the anticipated fluctuations in temperature and water availability in areas that are often starved of precipitation.

While richer nations are aggressively building renewable energy plants despite the higher cost, in South Africa, the coal economy will likely give way to a nuclear era, according to Lucas. As cheap coal reserves dwindle in future years, Eskom anticipates expanding its nuclear power program as a “carbon-free” alternative. Eskom recently put on hold plans to build a nuclear reactor because of the global financial situation, but that is expected to be a short term delay.

Barry Macoll, Eskom’s technology manager, said his personal opinion is that the country will be powered “by coal for the next 50 years, then by nuclear for 50 years, and then switch to renewables.”

Therefore, with Eskom and the South African government’s philosophy of maintaining cheap electricity rates and the need for clean power to be cost-competitive, it is not surprising that Eskom has no wind or solar plants delivering electricity to the national grid. Its functioning renewable power assets are limited to hydro-power plants, which currently provide less than 2 percent of its overall electricity.

Eskom is taking its first steps towards a goal of building up to 1,600 MW of renewable power by 2025. South Africa currently has just two small wind farms — an Eskom pilot plant of three wind turbines totaling 3 MW in Klipheuvel in the Western Cape, and a privately run 5 MW wind farm in Darling.

However, ample wind resources are available to South Africa. A 2003 study concluded that up to 5,000 MW of wind energy could be added to the national grid, and rural and small off-grid wind farms could add up to another 27,000 MW of power.

Eskom is currently studying the feasibility of installing a pilot 100 MW concentrating solar power (CSP) plant in the Northern Cape Province. The company is preparing an environmental impact study for the plant, which would use a series of heliostat mirrors to focus solar energy on a central tower, which transfers the heat to molten salt that is used to create steam to power a turbine. The CSP plant could be in operation by 2012.

Another as yet untapped renewable resource in South Africa is geothermal power. Lennon said Eskom has not yet “seriously looked at it.”

Eskom is more likely to reduce its carbon footprint by increasing the energy efficiency of its coal power operation. The company is hopeful that by burning coal where it lies underground it can cut CO2 emissions by up to 30 percent. Eskom’s Lennon said the underground coal gasification technology (UCG) “can revolutionize the way we produce energy around the world.”

The UCG process sets fire to coal seams, and uses the escaping gas to power a turbine and produce electricity. This also saves money because it eliminates the steps of mining the coal, bringing it to the surface, and then crushing it before burning it to produce power. Another benefit of UCG is that the fly ash resulting from the burning would also be kept underground, reducing the overall environmental impact.

UCG technology has been tested elsewhere, but Eskom engineers are “perfecting the process,” according to Lennon. Safety studies are still underway, but Lennon said the fires can quickly be put out by controlling the flow of oxygen. If all goes well, the plan is to begin an initial UCG project in the city of Majuba with a 1,200 MW capacity.

Going Forward

While action on climate change within the country may be limited so far, both the South African government and Eskom profess urgency in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

Earlier this month government minister van Schalkwy urged world leaders to proceed with combating climate change despite the global financial crisis. Eskom’s 2008 annual report highlights the need for reducing carbon emissions, and outlines the plan for gradually reducing the amount of emissions relative to energy output during the next two decades.

Eskom also acknowledges that it has work to do to become a sustainable organization. An independent study of corporate sustainability for 2008 found that Eskom failed in all four areas of evaluation (technical, economic, environmental, and social) with the scores falling across the board relative to 2007.

South Africa may have good intentions for becoming more sustainable as it modernizes, but the internal economic forces and a lack of impetus to immediately embrace renewables indicates there will be no significant shift in energy policy in the coming years. Developed nations shouldn’t expect South Africa to reduce its carbon footprint, unless they provide significant financial resources (such as investing in wind and solar IPP projects), or unless they can exert sufficient international political pressure.

Read more about South Africa

Leaving Footprints in South Africa

by on December 11, 2008 at 1:29 pm

I’ve just returned from spending ten days touring South Africa as one of nine U.S. bloggers who were brought in to write about the experience.

 

While the country certainly left an impression on us, we left a LeBron James-sized footprint on the world. I was invited to write about the plight of South Africa as it tries to be more sustainable, and it feels a bit hypocritical to have contributed so much in carbon emissions in the process.

The flights — including back and forth to Johannesburg, plus one commercial and two charter flights within the country total and three rides in a helicopter — total about 25,000 miles logged.

And then there were the bus rides — about 30 in all to hotels, restaurants and various travel destinations — for another 1,200 miles of road travel. By my rough calculations using TerraPass’ carbon calculator, that’s about 4 tons of carbon emissions for each of us, not including the impact of the energy burned in preparing the wonderful buffets and staying in hotels that are out of my normal travel budget.

Al Gore has been slammed for jetting around the world and preaching about climate change, and I expect some of you might also think our excursion was not worth the energy expended. But I hope that trying to enlighten myself and the world about how South Africa is striving for sustainability will get people thinking and eventually offset my travels.

We were exposed to a rich, proud and diverse culture, as you can see in my photo gallery, as well as in the pictures from my fellow bloggers. South Africa wants to become a first world nation, but with AIDS, poverty, and an economy based on the mining of natural resources, that won’t be easy.

In case you missed it, here’s what I wrote during my travels, with more analysis to come:

Following South Africa’s Past

Finding Diamonds in Rough Seas

South Africa Has Joule of An EV

Cradle of Mankind’s Grave Lesson

Game on at Plumari Conservation Reserve

Project Runway

Following South Africa's Path

by on December 7, 2008 at 1:15 am

If you are looking for a guide to how humanity should move forward to a sustainable future, there’s no better place to visit than where we all started.

Our whirlwind bloggers’ tour of South Africa included a dizzying 22 stops during the first five days. We’ve seen so much — including the rich and diverse cultures of the native peoples, the technology that seeks to build a greener future, the urban centers, and the lush landscape — that it is easy to miss the forest for all these lovely trees.

Why — other than making for great travel entertainment — does South Africa matter so much to the world today and to our collective future?

During the tour we’ve seen how South Africans, including non-profits, community groups and the provincial and federal government, are working to protect the language, culture, and natural beauty of the nation. While much of the population still lives in the poverty of shanty towns, the government and private sector are getting better at sharing the new wealth from the  diamond, gold, platinum and coal mining industries with the indigenous people.

Granted, this is a sponsored tour that attempts to show South Africa in the best possible light. But the interactions with people in the cross section of cities, towns and villages has revealed a strong commitment to making sure that future generations will have access to the nation’s rich heritage.

The !Khwa ttu center in Darling is preserving the spoken languages and tribal rituals of the San people to prevent them from being forgotten. The San people have been dispersed across all of Africa over the decades as more powerful groups have pushed them from their native lands. Parents of the current generation are no longer teaching the language, so the center is training children in their tribal culture and bringing together different San groups from all over Africa to share their common stories. The center also hopes to increase the financial resources for the local people by developing educational programs for tourists.

In the Richtersveld community on the west coast, money is flowing in after the resolution of a 10-year court battle over land rights and revenue from diamond mining after the land of the Nama people was taken away nearly a century ago. The local council of government is now determining how to spend the millions in back payments, with much yet to be decided about community and training programs.

The Richtersveld is also home to a 400,000 acre protected park of desert and mountains. The park is also home to many priceless petroglyphs (stone carvings) dating back 10,000 years.

In many parts of South Africa, conservation programs are returning animals to their native habitats and invasive non-native species are being removed. I was overwhelmed by the majesty of many species of birds and mammals that are once again roaming the plain at the Plumari Game Reserve. Being able to connect with some of earth’s grandest species up close is a powerful reminder of how we need to act to prevent climate change from damaging their fragile habitats.

The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site contains the world’s richest deposit of hominid remains. Zuza Fakude, a native of Soweto, talked with me about the importance of researching and preserving our ancestors. Maintaining archaeological sites enhances our incomplete family tree, she says. “It is important to know where you’ve come from, because it gives another way to look at things. It offers another piece of the puzzle.” She said visiting Magaliesburg is “especially important for us black people, because we are very much people of our ancestors.”

Anthony Paton, Public Relations manager for the Gauteng provincial government, agrees that visiting the Cradle of Humankind drives home our common ancestor. “We are far closer together as a race than our superficial differences lead us to believe. That unity of people is symbolized in th[is] place… That we all started from a single source reinforces that we should consider our impact on the planet and each other as we move forward in what is expected to be a resource constrained and environmentally challenged world. If we have an awareness that we are all one, then we can avoid the tragedy of the commons” (in which farmers allow their animals to overgraze because of a desire for personal profit, even if it imperils the entire community).

A sustainable future requires a “communal effort in not putting in an extra cow. The challenge for now is to not add to the burden on the commons, or the planet.” However, Paton concedes that there is not an equality in interest in understanding our common ancestry. He says that his area’s historic and cultural centers are having difficulty attracting wealthy South African whites. “Many are arrogant and don’t want to be educated when they are on holiday. Conversely black Africans who can least afford to come to the area are the most interested in visiting.”

In Soweto, museums highlight the recent history of the struggles against and victory over apartheid, the system of government that suppressed the rights of black South Africans until 1994. The Hector Pieterson Museum is named for a 13-year old boy killed by police during a demonstration on July 16, 1976. The incident sparked outrage inside South Africa and around the globe and paved the way for the collapse of apartheid.

At the nearby Mandela Family Museum (which we sadly were not able to visit), the life of the former prisoner of apartheid and later South African president is detailed. Fakude says “the apartheid museum teaches us about what the worst people can do, but also about the best of what they can do. That shows us the possibilities of what we can still accomplish; that we can do so much more.”

While humanity has shown a sickening ability to abuse portions of the population, the victory of apartheid and coming together of the races in building a better South Africa is a lesson for all strife-torn regions. “We have gone through all of this rubbish and put it aside — not behind us, but aside. It shows what you can do for the future from your strength. It is important to have these things to hold on to.”

Going back to where it started — where the earliest land masses formed, where the oldest mountains reside, and where our common ancestor once foraged — drives home the need for a future that can sustain our entire global family. “We have to realize that we all have common problems regarding the environment, regarding carbon (emissions) … and the over-fishing of the seas,” says Paton. “These all stem back to a common thing — there are too many of us in our family (to consume and emit greenhouse gases like westerners). The only way we’ll have a long-term future is to realize that we’re part of the same family.”

Cradle of Mankind's Grave Lessons

by on December 6, 2008 at 12:59 am

Friday afternoon’s stop on the South African endless bus/plane tour was in the area humbly named “The Cradle of Mankind.” Sterkfontein Caves in Gauteng’s fossilized remains are to paleontologists as Hollywood is to the paparazzi — a seemingly endless supply of somewhat human-looking beings to be examined from every angle.

The caves, are rich in hominid fossils (more than 700) because of a confluence of “lucky” circumstances. “People” and animals either recently or about to be dead were washed or fell into a series of deep holes. Then, limestone leaked into the holes, and fossilized the remains of the day for millennia, according to researcher Dominic Stratford who led our tour through the dark and dusty caves. He believes that the abundance of human and animal bones may come from the tendency of leopards to store their kills in trees that might have hung over the hole.

One of the most famous finds at Sterkfontein is Little Foot, a pre-human whose skeleton was nearly completely (97 percent) found.

Stratford regaled us with an interesting theory of how eating more meat may have helped us to walk erect. According to Stratford, hominids began switching from eating nuts and wild grasses to eating more protein, including other hominids who may have been killed by prey or by each other. This may have also been because of a gene mutation that caused smaller jaws. Stratford says chewing protein such as meat requires smaller jaw muscles that stretch to the base of the skull, so there’s more room for a larger brain. Larger brains helped with developing tools that moved us gradually out of the stone age. So take that granola-lovers, if it weren’t for munching on recently departed cousins, we might still be knuckledraggers!

Anthropology and paleontology were never presented in a way this interesting when I was in school.

Game On at Plumari Conservation Reserve

by on December 5, 2008 at 11:13 pm

I’ve never experienced anything quite like sharing a sunrise with the large game animals of Africa. Riding in an open air Jeep, we bounced along for three hours and encountered herds of giraffe, kudu (nice ears buddy!) wildebeests, and red hat antelope.

Where's my coffee?

Where

We also encountered two female as well as the one male lion on the preserve. The rains from the previous night left the “roads” muddy, forcing us to abandon the Jeep and push it out of the muck. Forget the need for caffeine when you’re hoping to get your vehicle moving while .

We also encountered a few zebra, oryx, water bug (another kind of antelope), gazelles, warthogs, plovers, and oh-soo-cute baby jackals.

According to our guide, Ansele Benjamin, all of the species except for the oryx were native to the Magaliesberg region. It was stunning to see giraffe gallop across the plain in the orange light of the early morning sun. Benjamin said the lions mostly fend for themselves by preying on kudu and water bugs as they want to allow the animals to live as naturally as possible. The lions were raised in captivity and aren’t fully up to snuff in hunting, so occasionally they are given meat. Invasive species of plants and trees that were brought in by farmers are being taken out to return the environment to its native state.

Most of the species had been driven out over the centuries because of farming and wars, including major battles of the Boer War in the early 20th century. Author Vincent Carruthers, who I had the privilege of hearing speaking, has written about how the region has played a major party in determining South Africa’s history because of the conflicts that took place between native, German and dutch troops.

Look for more pictures to come on Flickr.

Kudos to the friendly kudus

Kudos to the friendly kudus

Finding Diamonds in the Rough Seas

by on December 4, 2008 at 5:51 am

For the 60 men and three women aboard the Peace of Africa, diamonds aren’t a luxury, they’re a career choice. Finding the gems requires  the latest technology and creates a Jacques Cousteau-like adventure.

The Peace of Africa is a $1 billion South African rand ($110 million U.S.) piece of high-tech engineering designed to maximize the yield of precious gems from the ocean floor at a minimal cost and impact. The process may seem simplistic — find diamond “hot spots,” scrape along the floor to loosen the gravel and minerals, vacuum up the mess, and sort through what you got. The mining operation has been fully automated so that no human hands touch or even see the diamonds until they reach a secure facility on shore.

The system processes about 10,000 cubic meters of water and minerals per day. First the minerals are washed and then dried, and sorted to identify the materials most likely to be diamonds. The pieces are then x-rayed to illuminate the diamonds so that they can be identified, and then immediately spit out of the system and canned and sealed without a finger being laid on them.

One of the biggest challenges is figuring out what to keep and what to throw away, according to Elizly Steyn, the ship’s metallurgist. Steyn works for the De Beers Group, the diamond business that own and operates the ship. She’s part of a team that monitors a steady stream of data to optimize the diamond yields. The company’s target is 1000 carats of diamonds per day, or 200,000 carats per year, which includes down time for maintenance, technical glitches, and bad weather. Based on the information collected from the sonar scanning, automated underwater vessels, and real-time analysis, the filtering system is set up to only extract pieces between 2 and 19 millimeters in size, Steyn says. This results in the largest diamonds automatically being tossed overboard — not what you would expect. “It would cost more to process the additional material than you’d get back from the one large diamond you might find every six months,” says Steyn.

The diamonds were formed about 2.2 million years ago, and then thrust to the surface by volcanoes around 700 million years later, according to Tom Tweedy of De Beers. He says that while diamond mining started in South Africa about 100 years ago, no one bothered to look under the ocean until a Texas oil man suggested doing so in the 1960s after diamonds were found on the shore. The diamonds are harvested by “the crawler,” a remote controlled bulldozer-like vehicle that rests on the ocean floor and scrapes the bottom until the clay is reached. Steyn says only the occasional fish gets caught up in the vacuum. Most of the sea floor at around 125 meters is barren of vegetation. The crawler costs about $1 million U.S., so it is too expensive to keep a spare on board. When it stops working, as happened during our visit, so does the mining operation.

The crawler takes about 1 1/2 hours to retrieve and return atop the Peace of Africa, which is anchored about 10 miles off the coast. The waste water and minerals are automatically pumped to the side of the ship and eventually resettles on the bottom. The dolphins don’t seem to mind the brown cloud this creates, as a group of about half a dozen was hanging out by the side of the vessel during this reporter’s visit.

Another impediment to mining is the stormy weather off the coast near the South Africa-Zimbabwe border. Swells sometimes reach 27 meters in height, which shuts down operations as it is too strong for the flexible hoses that connect with the crawler below. Only when waves surpass 14 meters does the mining operation shut down. All of the equipment — the engines, the winches that maneuver the crawler and position the ship over the crawling area, and the machines that pump and sort the materials — run on electricity. The engines run on a fuel oil that is slightly thicker than diesel, and burn through between 18 and 30 tons of fuel each day. That’s the equivalent of filling up the gas tanks of about 600 cars per day. De Beers has an environmental officer dedicated to studying the ship’s impact on the ocean and air. The engines were tested to meet the government’s requirements for NOx and SOx emissions. While the air quality within the working areas of the ship is not monitored for emissions, an air filtration system cleans the air in the living quarters, according to Steyn. The ship’s crew stays on board the ship for 28 days and then gets 28 days off.

That schedule is just fine with Steyn, who plans to stay on for another two years. She grew up with three older brothers and is used to hanging out with the guys.

Project Runway

by on December 3, 2008 at 11:10 am

The passengers unaware of the impending adventure[/caption]s

The passengers unaware of the impending adventure

There’s nothing as adrenaline-inducing as a plane landing in less than optimal conditions. Today our team of bloggers got to enjoy(?) a dicey descent after a thunderstorm caused us to change airports on the fly.

We were headed for Lanseria airport, but the massive black clouds forced a 45 minute game of storm chasers before the pilot diverted to nearby Oliver Tambor airport. The charter plane is open to the front, so we could see the pilots manning the controls while clearly struggling with the elements.

As we approached the lighted runway, our aircraft was continually being pushed about 10 degrees to the right, and the pilot grappled with the wheel, turning left, left, and left again. It reminded me of my meager attempts at Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Every correction was met with an equal force of wind, and my heart started pumping as we got close enough to see the narrow white lines of the runway. Even after the wheels seemed ready to scrape the ground we were still a few degrees off course, but our adept pilot readjusted and got us squared up on the runway only seconds before touchdown.

I couldn’t wait to speak with the captain when deplaning. When asked if this were one of his trickier landings, he said “Most definitely,” with an exasperated sigh. “It was a struggle all the way down.”

South Africa Sluggish on Wind Power

by on December 2, 2008 at 9:00 pm

In many parts of the world, the winds of change may be blowing towards renewables, but don’t expect the South African government to participate.

That’s the assessment of Herman Oelsner, president of the African Wind Energy Association. Standing in front of four wind turbines in Darling in the Western Cape province, Oelsner told our group of bloggers that private industry and regional governments would have to lead the way. He explained that South Africa is rich in coal, and that the federal government owns Eskom, which provides 90 percent of the energy to the country. Because coal is cheap and abundant and the mining industry provides a lot of jobs, the country has little incentive to change. “The utility (Eskom) is against renewables, and that’s why we don’t have any in this country,” said Oelsner. South Africa currently produces 93 percent of its energy from coal.

The wind farm is selling electricity to the Capetown City Council through a power purchase agreement. “We are ‘pulling a Schwarzenegger’ by working directly with provinces which have their own policies,” said Oelsner, refering to the California governor’s penchant for enacting envirornmental regulations that far exceed federal standards.

The federal government did provide some money for the wind farm project, which is led by Danish investors, according to Oelsner. He envisions expanding the wind farm from 4 to 20 turbines, each with 1.3 megawatt generating capacity, and has designs on adding a 770 megawatt wave power project off the nearby western shoreline. Adding wave power would provide a “hybrid power source” as the waves are more powerful in summer while wind power is stronger in the winter.

Financing for the projects has not been lined up yet, but Oelsner does not anticipate problems. A pilot wave energy project of 5 megawatts would cost about 200 millon rand.

The wave project won’t go forward until a feed-in tariff from the province, which would guarantee an incentive for renewable power, is passed. Oelsner expects this to happen in March and hopes for an 85 cent (South African) tariff. This will give the project a big boost: feed-in tariffs in Germany and Spain have sparked the solar industry in those nations to lead the world. “We have to get a return on investment that is higher than the Eskom rate,” he said.

The mining and energy companies control government policy in South Africa, according to Oelsner. He said his organization was vying to become the first working wind farm in South Africa, but the permits were held up by the government until after a small test project from Eskom could be launched. In this sense, Oelsner’s project is going against the, er, wind.

South African Startup Has Joule of an EV

by on December 1, 2008 at 2:00 am

This morning’s blogger tour of South Africa included a stop off at the Capetown headquarters of startup electric car maker Optimal Energy.

The three-year old company is developing the Joule, a six-passenger all electric car that is scheduled to begin low-volume production at the end of 2010. CEO Kobus Meiring said the vehicle will have a maximum range of about 200 km, but the trunk has space for a second battery pack to double the range. The top speed for the car, aimed at city drivers, will be 130 km/hr.

The Joule is designed to compete with mainstream vehicles, not electric cars, Meiring said. He didn’t give specifics about the price, but said that without the batteries (which will be leased separately), the price will be in the range of 220 Rand (or around $25,000). The batteries will have a useful driving life of around 200,000 km.

The cost of the batteries is uncertain as the company has not selected a lithium ion battery partner yet, and Optimal Energy may lease batteries at multiple price points. (This is consistent with EV and plug-in hybrid makers in the U.S., who are similarly scrambling to identify batteries that meet their performance requirements). For EVs, batteries are a considerable amount of the cost, and the technology is still being tested and developed.

(For me it’s a little unsettling for car companies such as GM and Optimal Energy to be touting the wonders of a car when the major driving force–the batteries — are an unknown quantity. It’s like HP promising a wonderful new computer without knowing which CPU they’d use.)

Executive Marketing Manager Diana Blake said the company is considering batteries from 20 companies including those from China, the U.S. and Japan, and is also looking at ultracapacitors — the costly but durable solid state devices that can supplement batteries. Third-party battery companies, such as Better Place, which is setting up operations in Israel and the U.S., would be welcome to compete in battery leasing, according to Meiring.

Optimal Energy is targeting South Africa’s 700,000 units per year vehicle market. The Joule is designed to meet European safety regulations so that exporting to the north can also be an option.

The motivation to start the company included issues familiar to Americans — energy security (Meiring claimed 90 percent of all wars in the past 50 years were over energy), reducing carbon emissions, and increasing local jobs. However, the company has not yet studied the carbon impact in switching from South Africa’s diesel fuel derived from coal (nearly the entire market) to electricity from coal. Meiring said that electric batteries are five times more energy efficient than internal combustion engines, but transmission and energy losses in transferring energy to and from the batteries will lower the relative benefit. Since coal-to-liquids is about as carbon and energy intensive transportation around, the bar is pretty low for the vehicles to have a positive carbon impact.

While South Africa is currently under producing electricity to meet demand (and is therefore building more coal power plants), Meiring says the power grid has more than adequate power to accommodate overnight recharging even if the entire 7 million vehicle fleet switched to electrics.

Optimal Energy has several advantages in launching an electric fleet without impacting the grid over U.S. auto companies. First, the South African government’s Department of Science and Technology is a shareholder. Also, the state utility Eskom provides 90 percent of the electricity for the country, so introducing the vehicles requires dealing with a single entity, as compared to the U.S.’ mishmash of local private and public power providers.

Also, the country is on a single time zone, so night time recharging administration could be consistent through the nation. Meiring says introductory talks have begun with Eskom (which “has bigger fish to fry” because of insufficient power generating capacity), but they haven’t done demonstrations like are being done in the U.S. to test the impact of the vehicles on the grid. Meiring said the company plans on having the vehicles automatically recharge only at night, but an override would allow daytime charging.

Optimal Energy’s management include several engineers who developed helicopters for the government. Meiring said the company has outsourced much of the research and development to universities. He said that South Africa had been a leader in lithium battery technology until 1994 (when the government changed), and he believes that they could return to prominence in that area. Availability of lithium should not be an issue as nearby Zimbabwe has considerable untapped resources, according to Meiring.

The field for a full-time electric vehicle remains wide open as much-hyped Tesla Motors continues to have problems. While Optimal Energy did not mention selling the U.S. market, if the company can provide a hit in South Africa with locally-produced vehicles, the world may come calling.

(The blogger tour and meeting with Optimal Energy is being sponsored by the South African International Marketing Council).

Sustainability Includes Planet AND People

by on November 22, 2008 at 12:14 am

If you ask five friends what it means to be sustainable, you’ll likely get five varying interpretations. Most response would center on the treatment of the natural environment, or possibly the ability of a business to continue into the future.

On a macro level, sustainability also includes about the health impact of its mining industry, according to The New York Times.

The rate of fatalities in South Africa’s gold mining industry is improving, but still runs at more than four people per week. This is of particular concern to me since I’ll soon be a few thousand feet underground in the TauTona gold mine , as part of the We Blog the World media tour. The Tau Tona mine — the deepest operating mine in the world — has been improving its safety record but experiences dangerous seismic activity.

No enterprise where mother nature has a say in the outcome can ever be 100 percent safe, but it is important that strong guidelines be in place. As long as there is demand for high value minerals and metals, there will be mining, and people will lose their lives.

To ensure that those events are as rare as the metals being mined, the South African parliament is considering a law that would criminally prosecute mining executives — including jail time — for avoidable accidents on their watch. This would be a significant step towards protecting workers and making mining a more sustainable endeavor. All nations should consider such penalties.

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