Solar and wind power is doing great, but let’s also unders…

Addressing the need for power in Africa is not an issue up for debate. It is a given we urgently need electricity in our growing cities up to the furthest villages.

The more pertinent issue is how sustainable the available electricity options are as the continent seeks to industrialise and raise its development indices improving the lives of her people.

One of the available options is nuclear energy, of which an item featured in this newspaper wondered whether nuclear power for Africa makes sense (The News Times, May 27, 2018).

Its main thrust was that the cost of electricity generation from solar photovoltaic and wind technologies has come down so dramatically that it already costs less than power produced by nuclear plants.

Renewable energy, it argues, is therefore set to become even cheaper. This should portend good news if one considers that nuclear power supposedly also produces very inexpensive electricity, now set to become even cheaper with the new power technologies.

Therefore, aside from the exorbitant cost of setting up a nuclear plant and the environmental threats many conservationists decry, why should African countries consider it – especially given that South Africa, the only country on the continent operating a nuclear power plant, has shelved its nuclear plans on affordability grounds despite its economic might?

It poses a valid point. But if the issue is cost, not to mention the promise of cleaner version of the nuclear technology in the horizon, some doubt has, nevertheless, been cast about whether solar and wind energy is cheap at all.

A 2013 paper titled, “The Market Value of Variable Renewables: The Effect of Solar and Wind Power Variability on their Relative Price” by young German economist finds that the economic value of wind and solar declines significantly as the two sources contribute a larger supply on the electricity grid.

This is not to contradict the impact of the cheap, small-scale solar power panels changing rural lives in Africa with affordable electricity from a household rooftop.

The issue the paper raises is of large-scale power generation from the two renewable sources transmitted through a national grid. It finds in them inherent unreliability, as both solar and wind produce too much energy when electricity is not needed, and not enough when needed.

This means that solar and wind require supplementary sources of power – i.e., natural gas plants, hydro-electric dams, batteries, etc, which should be on the ready at a moment’s notice to start producing electricity when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining.

Using models in the more developed Western countries it has already correctly predicted a decline of as much as 40 per cent on the economic value of wind on the grid in some of the European countries, and a decline of up to 50 per cent on solar. This makes the paper worth noting.

Therefore, while it is true the price of solar panels per watt declined by 75 per cent between 2009 and 2017, with the price of wind turbines per watt dropping by 50 per cent during the same period, it does not appear promising that the significantly reduced costs could necessarily translate for the end user on the electricity grid.

On the other hand, conventional nuclear technology, which requires strong central governments and vertically integrated utilities that build, own, and operate a plant, requires some hefty economic might.

Thus, few nations have been able to build large nuclear plants cost-effectively in recent decades, with South Africa being the only country on the continent.

The article cited above wondering whether nuclear power for Africa makes sense listed a number of countries – Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan, Zambia and Uganda – that have reportedly concluded nuclear power memoranda of understanding with the Russian nuclear agency Rosatom.

Citing prohibitive costs, it strongly urges for caution. The most promising solution, it suggests, “seems to be through multiple small-scale power production initiatives, typically in bio-energy, solar heaters and photovoltaic modules.”

In as much as the small-scale power solutions are impacting lives in rural Africa, it may be another matter for the larger industries that require more power of which we might be caught between the nuclear concerns and the question of large scale viability of solar and wind power.

If the findings of the German paper are anything to go by, we could test its premise using our own research on local grids.

In the meantime, exploring possibilities for geothermal power and building dams for electricity generation, among other innovative solutions such as Rwanda’s methane gas initiative, remains very much on the cards.

Longer term, even as some countries around the world are cutting down on nuclear power, next-generation power technologies that include advanced nuclear reactors are currently under development and, we are informed, won’t be ready for large-scale commercialization for at least another decade or two.

Twitter: @gituram

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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