by Greg Penfold

Exploring alternative energy sources

A large degree of interest lies in natural gas options


The speakers in this PPC Clean Business session discussed various renewable and clean energy sources including natural gas and solar power. How to encourage a reduction in carbon footprint by using clean energy and how to measure energy usage and improve on it, were discussed as key factors in the drive toward cleaner energy.

Natural gas as an energy source

Chris Bredenhann, PricewaterhouseCoopers SA energy leader, said there was much interest in South Africa in exploring natural gas as an energy alternative, but a number of barriers first needed to be overcome.

Notwithstanding the shale gas reserves in the Karoo, currently the topic of heated environmental debate, the country also has access to coal-bed methane – a supply that is currently being investigated by a number of companies.

If indigenous gas is found in sufficient volumes, it could have a significant impact on the South African economy,” added Bredenhann.

He said gas was an ideal energy source that could fill the gaps left by solar- and wind-generated energy, meant to supplement the country’s base energy supply via coal and nuclear power.

Bredenhann said, however, that there were significant environmental challenges to overcome and policies needed to be put in place to address this before gas could become a viable alternative.

Capital costs, construction lead times and energy diversification needed to be considered as well.

South Africa has limited gas infrastructure: pipelines, storage facilities or liquid natural gas regasification terminals. Other concerns included security of supply, which could discourage people from making the switch.

Solar and biomass energy

Dr Samson Mamphweli from the Fort Hare Institute of Technology said the institute had done studies on low-cost housing and came up with a design that was energy-efficient, heating and cooling the structure naturally.

The institute was also researching the building of houses where energy needs were integrated, allowing the houses to operate off the national grid by using solar power for heating and its own shadow for cooling.

Dr Mamphweli said the institute has done research into biomass gasification. “The institute has a 150 kilovolt-ampere biomass gasifier installed at a village about 13 kilometres outside the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape, where residents are baking bread from the electricity coming from the gasifier.”

The biomass is placed in a reactor, whereafter it goes through a thermo chemical process to produce gas which, in turn, is used to generate electricity.

According to Dr Mamphweli, the institute was looking at the gasification of sugar cane gas along with the Sugar Milling Research Institute.

Another area of research included improving the carbon footprint of coal technologies by looking at the gasification of coal biomass. 

National energy ranking and performance

Dr Braam Dalgleish from Energy Cybernetics said tests between the performance of energy-efficient cars Toyota Prius and BMW M3 had shown “it’s not what you drive, but how you drive it” – a lesson that could be related to energy efficiency in buildings.

For this reason, a national rating and ranking programme was valuable.

He explained that the commercial sector was a key energy user in South Africa and, if energy were used at the rate currently happening, even more pressure would be put on the sustainability of the business sector.

To mitigate issues such as load shedding and massive tariff increases, business needed to become more energy-efficient,” commented Dalgleish.

Dr Dalgleish said to achieve this, business needed a base line against which to compare itself.

The energy barometer, now in its third year, helps to properly rank the energy performance of commercial buildings by offering an accurate energy benchmark database of South African buildings.

Energy barometers have been created for various building types, shopping centres, hospitals, hotels, banks and even car dealerships.

The database grew from 20 buildings in 2010 to close to 100 at present, Dr Dalgleish said.

The energy barometer takes into consideration climatic conditions, the size of the building, the location of the building, occupancy, electricity bills and how the building is used.

Businesses can track their performance to see if they are improving on their energy usage or not by measuring their ranking on the barometer, he explained.

Carbon pricing and energy management

One can manage energy if one can measure it and cost it,” said Robbie Louw, founder of Promethium Carbon, adding that renewable energy is expensive compared to the relatively cheap fossil fuel option.

He explained that once a carbon tax is added to the fossil fuel price, it becomes competitive with the price of renewable energy. “If a carbon credit is introduced for the use of renewable energy, renewable energy costs can also be brought down to competitive levels.”

Louw said that in 2009, the carbon credit market in the world was bigger than the amount of gold mined, the amount of platinum mined, almost as big as the amount of coal mined, and it was still substantially smaller than the oil industry.

About three months ago, carbon credits became the second biggest market in the world, making the sector a significant player in the world economy.

The cost of carbon is linked to technical issues such as the cost of abatement and the amount of carbon that can be tolerated in the atmosphere in order to maintain the planet in a liveable state,” Louw explained.

In South Africa, companies will be allowed to offset 10% of their emissions, a move that has opened the door for a carbon trading mechanism. By about 2015, if the legislation were to come in place, South Africa’s carbon credit market could see the trading of about R3 billion.

Across the world, countries are implementing carbon, renewable energy and biofuel trading schemes that are expected, over time, to be linked.

According to Louw, by 2015, at least 46% of the world’s gross domestic product and 42% of the world’s emissions is likely to be covered by such trading schemes.

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