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China’s Renewable Energy Expertise Could Help Cape Town Address Crippling Blackouts

File image of Cape Town during on one of the regular black outs, or load shedding periods, that are now common in South Africa's second city. RODGER BOSCH / AFP

As South Africa’s power woes worsen, Cape Town is seeking to double electricity supplies from hydropower from the current 200 megawatts (MW) in a desperate bid to reduce the impact of chronic power outages.

South Africa’s second-biggest city is trying to reduce its reliance on the national utility, Eskom which is struggling to meet electricity demand. This has seen the company impose rotational blackouts which are sometimes lasting more than 10 hours every day.

Kadri Nassiep, the municipality’s executive director of energy and climate change says they are conducting a study for the expansion of the 180-megawatt Steenbras hydropower plant. Discussions are ongoing regarding plans to source electricity from prospective locations outside the city.

Cape Town’s move comes after a 2020 legislation that allows municipalities to buy electricity from other providers apart from Eskom.

In its pursuit, the coastal city is also studying an offer for renewable energy from the building and operation of a solar power plant that could generate between 50 and 60 megawatts. The plant will be on land leased from the municipality by the generating company.

Studies for a possible 30-megawatt solar plant at Paardevlei are ongoing.

Cape Town is targeting adding eight to 10 megawatts from micro-hydro plants while city landfills are expected to generate three and five megawatts. An additional 7 megawatts could be added from a planned solar plant to the north of Cape Town.

The city has already tendered private power suppliers for about 700 megawatts while also running a floating solar-power installation pilot project at the Kraaifontein Waste Water Treatment Plant.

Nassiep said that they are now looking at using floating solar in large dams, reservoirs or estuaries and lagoons following the results of the Kraaifontein pilot.

For South Africa, there are key lessons from its neighbor Zimbabwe, where China has proposed constructing a floating solar plant on the Kariba dam. The installation by China Energy Engineering Corp. (China Energy) will cost nearly $1 billion for the generation of 1,000 megawatts of electricity.

Reuters reports that China Energy has already completed two floating solar projects in Thailand and in China’s Shandong Province. This could be the launching pad for similar projects in Zimbabwe.

Chinese companies have made inroads in South Africa’s energy generation albeit in the wind energy sector. China’s Longyuan Power is undertaking the De Aar wind farm project with an installed capacity of 244.5 MW. This could make it easier for Chinese companies to get into solar power generation and other renewables as the southern African nation seeks to plug its power deficits.

The 2020 legislation, coupled with good power purchase agreements, has seen nearly $13 billion invested to develop 77 wind and solar facilities by independent power producers. The African Energy Chamber (AEC) projects that South Africa will hit 13.21 gigawatts (GW) by the end of this year due to the new changes.

China in South Africa’s Renewable Energy Transition

Given its strengths in renewable electricity technology, China cannot be ruled out of South Africa’s renewable energy transition, especially solar.

During the International Energy Week in London two weeks ago, Mike Hemsley, deputy director at the Energy Transitions Commission think tank said that China is on track towards hitting 1,800 gigawatts of total renewables by 2030. If the country achieves this, it will be 50% more than Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 1,200 gigawatts target by the end of this decade.

Although China approved 106 gigawatts of new coal power capacity in 2022 which is four times more than a year earlier, carbon emissions do not necessarily have to increase. The country’s rapid progress in scaling up clean energy could just be the answer to the fears that the new coal-fired capacity stoke.

WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT? South Africa’s atotal installed power capacity is 62.7 GW. Most of this power is generated from coal, a resource that most countries are now seeking to abandon in favor of cleaner energy. China has the same challenges, probably bigger, but it is leaping and even surpassing set targets for clean energy shifts.

South Africa plans to reduce its reliance on coal for power generation to 65% by 2030 from the current 80%. Towards this goal, South Africa is expected to reduce its reliance on coal to 75% by 2025. There is a lot to learn from China towards achieving these goals.


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