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.