While Eskom is struggling with strikes, defective boilers and unsuitable electronic control equipment to finish its mammoth coal-fired Medupi power station in Limpopo – the first phase will hopefully start producing toward the end of 2014 – renewable power plants are quietly being completed and starting to produce power.

Mainstream Renewable Power, a large renewable energy company based in Ireland, this week announced that it is to build another 3 wind farms in SA at a total cost of R9bn, in addition to 3 projects the company is already constructing in SA.

These new wind farms will have a total generating capacity of 360 megawatt. Two new wind generating plants with capacity to produce 140MW each will be situated near Loeriesfontein in the Northern Cape and a smaller facility 80MW will be constructed near Noupoort, some 50km from Colesberg in the Karoo.

Mainstream is currently completing 3 other renewable electricity installations that have been awarded by the National Energy Regulator of SA in 2011.

The wind farm near Jeffreys Bay in the Eastern Cape is nearly completed, while work on two solar plants near De Aar and Droogfontein in the Northern Cape Province is progressing well. Total generating capacity of these projects amounts to nearly 600MW, which is enough electricity to provide power to about 300 000 typical houses.

Although all the wind and solar plants in SA are very small compared to any of Eskom’s power stations (Medupi’s first generator sets will produce 4800MW), they are starting to make an important contribution to SA’s electricity supply.

Even more important is that these plants are erected and put into commission quite fast.

Mainstream CEO Eddie O’Connor says that all Mainstream’s new projects have financing in place and have received planning permissions. Connections to the national power network are currently being finalised.

Barry Lynch, MD of the Mainstream’s Onshore Procurement, Construction and Operations, told Fin24 that it is noteworthy that renewable energy is starting to become economically more competitive in comparison with traditional power stations.

“The recent bidding round clearly demonstrates that wind and solar are now more competitive than coal due to technology advancements and aggressive local and international investors who are backing quality projects,” said Lynch.

“In addition, wind and solar have the added advantage in that they can be deployed quickly and at a scale that South Africa needs.” It makes sense to place these smaller renewable plants close to where electricity will be used and reduce the pressure on the new power stations to transmit electricity around a huge, sparsely populated country like SA.

A host of smaller projects are also under construction to generate electricity directly where needed.

The Black River Office Park in Cape Town has installed the largest solar system on a building’s roof yet in SA. The first phase of the project was completed at the end of June.
Joubert Rabie, developer of the office park, says it makes good business sense as the pay-back period is only 7 years based on current trends in electricity prices.

Electricity is used within the office buildings and excess electricity will be fed into the national power grid once legislation allows it. Current legislation does not make provision to sell electricity back to municipalities – effectively running your electricity meter backwards.

A change in legislation will be a boom for the industry and will see a surge in investment, as it will reduce the size of expensive battery banks and make projects even more economically attractive.