SA to have 400 wind turbines spinning by year-end

Driving along the West Coast road not far from Cape Town, it is hard to miss the 37 turbines reaching into the sky at the Hopefield wind farm. It may seem an unusual sight in South Africa for now, but not for too long. There are likely to be 400 turbines spinning by the time we wave 2014 goodbye – a clear indication that wind power is taking off in the country.

Across South Africa, five wind farms are in full production, 15 large-scale wind farms are under construction and another seven are approaching financial close. Once all of them are up and running and their proposed 700 turbines installed, they will generate 1 983 MW of power.

Most of the wind farms are finding homes in the windswept provinces of the Eastern Cape, the Western Cape and the Northern Cape.

“Wind energy is certainly here, and there is plenty more in development and ready and waiting to be given the go-ahead,” says Johan van den Berg, CEO of the South African Wind Energy Association (Sawea).

Three utility-scale wind farms have begun exporting electricity to the grid for the first time. Three of them – the Hopefield wind farm, the Van Stadens wind farm, outside Port Elizabeth, and the Klipheuwel Dassiefontein wind farm, near Caledon, in the wheatlands of the Western Cape – are now providing 120 MW of capacity.

The 138 MW Jeffreys Bay wind farm, in the Eastern Cape, where 60 wind turbines have been commissioned, came to Eskom’s rescue recently when supply was critical. The farm, which spans 3 700 ha, will supply 460 000 MWh/y, enough clean renewable electrical energy to power 100 000 average South African households. The project is expected to cut annual carbon emissions by 420 000 t.

Other wind energy projects, approved under bid window one of government’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP), are slated to reach commercial operation within the next few months, while wind farms already being developed in bid window two and three will add another 1 421 MW to the grid.

Judging by the huge oversubscription in round three, it has been a popular industry to pursue. “The huge oversubscription demonstrates that there are more private investors and developers just waiting to build more wind farms,” says Van den Berg.

Denmark, which has been involved in the South African wind industry for years, having financed the first wind park in South Africa, the Darling wind park, through its Danida cooperation more than ten years ago, is buoyant about investor interest in the industry.

“In the beginning, our work in the wind sector was often met with sceptical questions on how wind energy could be a suitable energy source for South Africa. “Today, it is clear that there is great potential. The first wind parks are already on the grid and contribute to South Africa’s energy supply,” says Danish Ambassador to South Africa Rene Dinesen.

He says it is also encouraging that manufacturing of components for the wind industry is under way in South Africa. This includes factories being set up to produce towers for the wind turbines.

Dinesen says he hopes South Africa could be a frontrunner in Africa, as Denmark has been in Europe. Today, a third of Denmark’s energy supply comes from wind, with goals to boost wind energy so that it makes up half of the country’s energy mix by 2020.

In Germany, on good days, the country has the ability to generate all energy from renew- ables, while on Christmas Day last year Denmark produced 112% of its energy through wind energy, says Van den Berg.

In South Africa, the goal is for wind and solar energy to make up at least 20% of supply to the national grid by 2030, according to the government’s Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity 2010–2030.

Fierce Competition
The fierce competition in the wind industry in South Africa has also meant that prices have dropped dramatically. Sawea says the price of wind energy has fallen by 42%. In round three of the REIPPPP, wind energy averaged 74 c a kilowatt-hour (kWh) – 30% cheaper than the predicted cost of new coal at the Medupi power station.

“This is really good news for wind energy and for the country. South Africa is the only place where we produce renewables below the cost of fossil fuel energy, with socioeconomic development thrown into the mix,” says Van den Berg.

While growth has been swift, there has been a downside in that the burgeoning industry has made it harder for smaller players to compete.

Van den Berg says it would be good to bring smaller players into the mix. At this stage the industry has mainly attracted “big, experienced and strong players with big projects”. This has caused a certain amount of consolidation in the industry. Some of the smaller players, who have battled to stay afloat, have been incorporated into larger entities.

A visit to the Hopefield wind farm in the first chill of winter was a sign of things to come. The turbines were spinning steadily at a 95-m-high hub height.

The farm has been developed by Umoya Energy, one of the successful bidders in the first round of the REIPPPP. Construction was completed in January this year, with operations taking off in February. The farm is now selling electricity to the grid.

Umoya Energy technical manager Sam Cook says there is much variability in the wind speed, but they are able to work around this. “The blades are ‘feathered’ so that, at low wind speeds, more blade is exposed to the wind. As the speed picks up, less torque is required,” says Cook.

Each turbine operates independently and has its own sensors, which detect wind direction and wind speed. Surveillance of the Vestas turbines is done remotely from Europe. Cook says errors are often related to software, while the sensors sometimes require recalibration.

The mesmerising whirring of the blades is quieter than expected. Operating wind farms have to meet strict noise guidelines so that they do not disturb nearby residents.

In rural areas, wind farms need to meet the guidelines of 35 dB. The comparative sound is that of a quiet bedroom at night. This rises to 45 dB in urban areas – about the same level of sound as the background noise of an average sitting room.
Normal conversation is around 60 dB, while street traffic in a large city is 80 dB.

About 300 people were employed during the construction of the Hopefield wind farm.

South African factories have produced the massive towers for the wind turbines on Hopefield farm, while Danish company Vestas has supplied the turbines. Vestas Southern Africa is responsible for the farm construction, as well as ope- ration and maintenance for the first 15 years. Full-time local staff have been trained and employed to maintain the Hopefield farm and others in the region.

As with all similar farms around the country, it is very important to get the buy-in of the community.

The Hopefield wind farm local community company owns a 5% share in the programme and will get a percentage of the revenue of the project, and later dividends from shareholders. This will be ploughed into projects in the community, the first one being to improve homes with solar geysers and insulation.

Sawea forecasts that wind energy projects could generate over R5-billion of revenue for local economic development over the next 20 years.

A study by postgraduate students Sarah Stands and Holle Wlokas on the commitments and practical outcomes of the REIPPPP has shown how revenue percentage and dividends from shares in the farms will benefit the surrounding local economies and residents over the full lifetime of the wind farms, which is expected to be 20 years.

Socioeconomic Spin-Offs
The procurement system is designed in such a way that each utility-scal
e wind farm has to invest a percentage of its revenue towards socioeconomic development and, in some cases, enterprise development in the areas surrounding the farm. Shares in the wind farm project company are allocated to an entity representing local residents within a 50-km radius.

The benefits for the community can be very generous, depending on the project. Wind energy developments allocate between 2.5% and 40% of shareholding to legal entities representing local communities. The dividends generated from each development need to be invested into local economic development projects and programmes.

The funds will be released once the wind farms start to generate profit, which can take up to ten years. It may take a while to reap the returns, but it could be very worthwhile for people living in the reach of wind farms.

In part to help potential investors seek out good opportunities, South Africa’s first ever Wind Atlas has been developed.

The Wind Atlas, developed in conjunction with the Danish government and the United Nations Development Programme, as well as several other partners, will help industry and government identify excellent wind development zones. It has been mapping the Western Cape, parts of the Northern Cape, and the Eastern Cape. More funding from the Danish government will see the Wind Atlas being expanded into the remaining areas of the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and parts of the Free State.

Wind, topography and land cover have been measured, while an Extreme Wind Atlas has also been launched. Ten 60-m-high wind masts have been installed at various sites. Graphs are available to the public online, while data from each wind station is regularly updated.

Government has welcomed the Wind Atlas as a way of boosting the industry.

“We need good and reliable tools such as the Wind Atlas for long-term strategic planning. It will help developers to prepare for wind farms and diversify our energy mix,” Mokgadi Modise, chief director of clean energy in the Department of Energy, told a recent seminar on the Wind Atlas in Cape Town.

African Pioneer
South Africa is increasingly seen as a pioneer in the wind field on the continent.

“As the market grows in the coming years, many companies in the Danish wind industry will be looking at South Africa. We believe it can be a springboard for companies interested in other African markets as they mature in the future,” Danish Wind Association CEO Jan Hylleberg told Engineering News.

As bid window three has reached completion, many are eagerly awaiting the start of round four bidding, which is expected in August.

“The wind industry is able to rapidly build much more than we are currently doing. Dozens of prospective wind farms have permits and approvals in place and could go into construction within six months if government gives the go-ahead today,” says Sawea chairperson Dipolelo Elford.

As winter bites, the threat of load shedding is palpable. While wind energy may not be able to make a big dent in the short term, it could increasingly become a solution to South Africa’s energy demands in the years to come.