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South Africa switches on 1st wind farm amid electricity crisis

May 23, 2008 - Clare Nullis - Canadian Business Online

DARLING, South Africa (AP) - South Africa's energy minister inaugurated the country's first wind farm Friday, acknowledging that the government has done too little to harness the gales that lash its coastline and the sun that scorches its interior.

The wind farm will provide only 100th of the country's national energy needs and will not ease the acute electricity shortages afflicting South Africa. But Buyelwa Sonjica, the minerals and energy minister, called it a first key step in the quest toward renewable energy.

"It has been a long road to reach this milestone," said Sonjica as she "switched on" the turbines.

The wind farm was proposed in 2000, but government red tape, environmental planning objections, and opposition from state utility Eskom to the arrival of independent power producers slowed progress.

"We are not yet there in terms of exhausting our potential for wind energy," Sonjica said, adding that even though South Africa enjoys more sunshine than Europe, it has done little to promote solar energy.

Sonjica said wind has the potential to meet 9 percent of South African energy needs - and much more in coastal provinces.

Wind power currently accounts for about 1 percent of electricity generation worldwide. Denmark leads the field with 27 percent of its energy from wind, Spain and Portugal have 9 percent, and Germany and Ireland 6 percent, according to figures provided by Sonjica.

Danish Ambassador Don Frederiksen said his country's economy had expanded much faster than energy consumption in recent years, thanks to wind power.

Denmark helped fund the 75 million-rand ($10 million) wind farm in Darling, a town of 5,000 people surrounded by scrub and sand dunes about one hour from Cape Town.

The four turbines on the Windhoek (Windy Corner) farm will save an estimated 100,000 tons in coal consumption. They will produce enough energy to satisfy 60 percent of Darling's energy needs in winter, when there is less wind, and 90 percent in summer, according to Hermann Oelsner, chief executive of Darling Wind Power.

There are plans to erect an additional 16 turbines to allow the farm to supply energy to other parts of Cape Town.

South Africa is dependent on coal-powered stations for more than 90 percent of its electricity, which has until now been the cheapest in the world. State utility Eskom says the low price has prevented infrastructure development, and applied for a 53 percent price hike.

Widespread power cuts plunged the country into chaos earlier this year, at one stage forcing the country's all-important gold and platinum mines to close.

"We are in a deep, deep challenge that is going to take some time to come out of," Eskom chairman Valli Moosa said Friday on the first day of public hearings on the proposed price hike.

The government wants to double generating capacity by 2011 by bringing three mothballed power stations back into production and building two new power stations. It has also asked U.S. and French companies to bid to build a second nuclear power plant.