Archive for 'Green Technology'

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.”

For governments, no easy energy choices ahead

by on December 6, 2008 at 1:51 pm

A developing situation in South Africa may hint at what lies ahead for the world’s nations, a future holding no easy choices when it comes to making and using electricity.

State-owned utility Eskom has abandoned a plan for an $11.5 billion nuclear generator that would have boosted the country’s electrical capacity by about 10 percent. Eskom says the price was too high, in part because the global recession has made financing more difficult.

Unfortunately, the cancellation leaves a hole that must be filled. In general, the country is open to building new coal plants, and several are already slated, but the local energy mix is already heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

South Africa is also strained to the max when it comes to its energy supply, with several shortfalls already projected for the coming year. That makes building more cheap and easy coal or gas plants a tempting fix, especially with prices temporarily low.

But the choice to stick with fossil fuels could be deadly for the ruling parties in the future, in part because global warming’s effects on Africa are becoming more apparent. While economic and social issues remain the top worries for now, an arid desert climate is advancing eastward across the country, meaning the water supply for the country’s most populous region could soon be overwhelmed by demand.

Building more fossil fuel plants will only make the government — which in fact just fired a top scientist who warned of water shortfalls — look complicit in the problems, which could easily result in social unrest.

The best solution appears to lie both in nuclear power -– smaller, cheaper plants have already been suggested –- and sources like wind, solar and wave power. There’s a project taking place on the southeastern coast, in fact, that could be world-changing if it goes through, providing about 770 megawatts of wave power -– alongside smaller amounts of wind and solar energy.

But the total output for the project, being headed by a company called the Darling Wind Farm (pictured above), will total less than a third of the 3,300 megawatts the canceled nuclear project would have provided.

The wind farm’s CEO, Herman Oelsner, said he’s confident the ruling government will pass a feed-in tariff in March that will offer a high enough price for him to develop his projects. Yet with Eskom in control of the country’s energy supply, even Oelsner is forced to operate in partnership with a local province, rather than working independently.

And like many state-owned utilities, it’s unlikely that Eskom will take it upon itself to develop renewables, because that cuts into the company’s bottom line. For now, the state appears unwilling to grapple with the cost of alternatives.

That will work for the moment, because there may be no immediate danger: South Africa’s government says that the decision to cut out the nukes was reasonable, as it believes the recession will limit demand.

But with supplies already limited, and a growing economy and population, that excuse won’t stand for long. The status of energy, as a social and economic issue, is rapidly changing, perhaps too quickly for the government to react. And South Africa is far from the only country in this position.

WindFarming energy…unbelievable? Believe it

by on December 3, 2008 at 11:30 pm

Two days ago we traveled to the Darling Windfarm. Sounds nice and quaint I suppose. It is magnificent. It’s astounding and huge for four fans spinning at a rate of knots to create energy.
Another highlight (yes there were many) of yesterdays Cape Town trip was this Windfarm. It’s called a wind farm I can […]

South Africa: Darling Windfarm.

by on December 3, 2008 at 9:33 am

South Africa: Darling Windfarm

[South Africa Blogging Tour 08] This is not a new technology but alternative energy sources are becoming more popular these days, so it is worth a little post. We went to visit the Darling Windfarm, the first large wind turbine facility in sub-Saharan Africa. The 4 turbines producing 5 MW can provide 70 % of the electricity to the 6000 people living in the area. Herman Oelsner, president of the African Wind Energy Association, told us that the Cape Town Municipality is willing to pay an extra to get a cleaner electricity (85c instead of 45c for “coal”electricity), The deal is not closed yet and up to 16 turbines may be build

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In the picture: Graeme Addison

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 Africa’s Darling Wind Farm

by on December 2, 2008 at 1:36 am

darling wind farm

Yesterday morning we visited the Darling Wind Farm. In addition to the three windmills in the photo, there is a fourth behind me. Those four generate enough electricity to fulfill 80% of Darling’s current energy needs.

Of course, not every community is windy enough to justify wind-powered renewable energy, but there are plenty of windy places like Darling that could meet most of their energy needs by installing just a few turbines.

Joule, the South African Electric Car

by on December 1, 2008 at 8:53 am


[Blogging Tour – South Africa 08] This morning we went to Optimal Energy in Cape Town to meet with CEO Kobus Meiring for a presentation of the South African electric car A.K.A. Joule. Presented last September at the Auto Show in Paris, this promising green vehicle got a lot of attention from the industry, but it will not hit the market until the end of 2010. The goal of Optimal Energy is to compete with the mainstream offering and not only with the other electric cars, that is the reason why it fits 6 passengers and has a 130 km per hour maximum speed. The company does not know which type of lithium battery it will use for the final product yet, and we did not see any drive test. If the final Joule is really as good as it is on the paper, we can expect a bright future for clean automotive. Features include: 200km to 400 km range, 0-100 km in 15 seconds, 0-50 km in 5 seconds, energy cost 4c* /km (compared to 80c/km with petrol, diesel). It will be priced around $22,000.

* This is the South African cent.

Africa joining the electric car craze, with Optimal Energy’s Joule

by on December 1, 2008 at 8:48 am

The entire world hopes to start driving electric cars soon, and Africa, despite its reputation for poor economies, is no exception. Luckily, a South African company called Optimal Energy is working to release a vehicle in 2010.

And unlike the many attempts to make electric cars as small and cheap as possible, the vehicle, called the Joule, will be a highway-speed, multi-passenger model aimed at the same people that buy full-priced four door vehicles, making it a good fit for Europe and the United States.

Optimal has the benefit of strong support from its government, which has put money into the company through a research investment fund. Having such backing gives Optimal the time to pay close attention to its engineering and design choices.

That has resulted in some some uncommon bonuses for buyers, like an optional solar panel integrated with the roof that will help charge the car, and varying seat designs — the standard model will have six seats, three front and three back, but North Americans would likely be more comfortable with four.

One interesting design choice affects both the physical car and its business model. The Joule will have an adjustable chassis that can fit a variety of battery types and sizes, so the company won’t be tied to using a particular technology. The battery will also be offered on a separate lease, to help ease the pain of simultaneously paying for the vehicle and, effectively, several years worth of fuel. Customers will also have the choice of paying for a smaller or cheaper battery to save money.

But even without the battery included in the price, the car won’t be cheap by local standards. While Optimal’s CEO, Kobus Meiring, isn’t ready to set a firm price yet, he says vehicles in the same class go for about 220,000 South African Rand, about $22,000 dollars. Compare that to the Tata Nano, sold in the same market. The Nano’s lowest price is around $2,200 – and it is still far out of reach for the poorest South African families.

That leaves plenty of potential buyers, but focusing only on the local market would be a mistake, says Meiring. “You really have to be a global player,” he says. “There isn’t a manufacturer in the world that remains successful by staying only in its own country.”

So far, the company has completed much of the design, and recently showed off the vehicle at a popular Paris auto show. It was well received, according to Meiring. That’s not a hard claim to believe; up close, the prototype model comes across as sleek and modern, and the car is supposed to have a robust range of almost 250 miles, and top speed of about 80 miles per hour.

While Optimal is also working on a three seat design and a truck, the Joule is furthest along, and the company is bulking up rapidly to reach production. It currently has 79 employees, primarily engineers, and is planning to open a manufacturing facility near its headquarters in Cape Town, or in another South African city.

What the company still needs is money, although perhaps less than companies based in countries with more expensive labor. It also needs international partners to begin selling the car, once it’s in production. Meiring says he’d be interested in forming partnerships similar to the one Think, a Norwegian electric car maker, set up with two American venture capital firms.

With any luck, the pieces will all fall into place — it’s not hard to imagine a Joule parked in an American driveway.

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).

South Africa Struggles With Carbon Footprint

by on November 20, 2008 at 8:58 am

South Africa’s growing economy may be slowing, but its appetite for energy is not. The nation has struggled to keep pace with its need for fuel and power and continues to expand its use of coal — and therefore its carbon emissions.

According to a new government report, South Africa is now ramping up efforts to at least account for and disclose its CO2 emissions without promising reductions. The country’s leading private coal producer also says emissions are on the rise, and is hoping for new technology to offset the continued expansion of coal used for electricity and transportation.

The government of South Africa just released its second Carbon Disclosure Report, which included more than double the amount of participating companies from the prior year. While more companies are beginning to track their carbon emissions and set goals, the data is far from complete, according to the report:

Relatively few companies (23 percent) have disclosed specific, company-wide GHG emissions reduction targets; and most of those companies that have emissions targets have focused on reducing their emissions-intensity, rather than striving for a reduction in absolute emissions.

Other South African companies that are expecting an associated cost for carbon emissions to be added in the coming years are starting to track their emissions internally.

South Africa has been slower to address climate change than other nations because of a lack of international obligations to do so, according to the report. While South Africa, signed onto the Kyoto Protocol, as a developing nation, it is not required to set or meet emissions reductions targets.

Energy company Sasol, which participated in the report, issued its own sustainability report this week that stated that greenhouse gas emissions grew from 69.8 to 72.7 million tons during the past year. Sasol is the nation’s leading producer of transportation fuel derived from coal (coal to liquids, or CTL). CTL fuel requires three times as much energy to produce than gasoline, losing 40 percent of the energy during the conversion process.

Sasol, one of the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases, is pursuing a new coal to liquids plant, saying it would create jobs and help to ease the country’s energy crunch.

Sasol hopes that new technologies will someday help to green its business. The company does not have wind, wave or solar power generation facilities because according to CEO Pat Davies, they are not part of its core competencies.

Coal provides 90 percent of the electricity and one-third of the transportation fuel in South Africa, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

State-run utility Eskom hasn’t been able to keep pace with electricity and has resorted to rolling blackouts while it ramps up the construction of new coal plants. South Africa’s growing economy has been slowed by the international financial crisis, but the power demand is growing as the nation modernizes.

In addition to its 13 coal plants, Eskom operates two hydropower plants, one nuclear power plant, and a small pilot wind farm.

Image courtesy of Flickr, DanielDVM.

(Matter Network’s John Gartner will be touring South Africa and blogging about sustainability initiatives starting on November 29 as part of the Blogging South Africa program. Sign up for the RSS feed here.}

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