Editor's Choice

Attaining a sustainable legacy

Technews Industry Guide: Sustainable Manufacturing 2022 Editor's Choice News

The climate crisis facing our planet has, by now, become part of our collective consciousness, especially as it has been beset by extreme weather events of unprecedented scale and severity over recent years. This was made all the more stark by the recent discovery of a previously unknown ozone hole, situated in the lower stratosphere over the tropics, which is comparable in depth to the well-known springtime Antarctic hole, but covering an area roughly seven times larger and lasting the entire year.

Even more shocking than the discovery itself is the fact that this hole has existed since the 1980s. I say even more shocking because, as much as scientists have learned about human-induced climate change and despite the topic being a regular news staple, the plain truth is that we do not yet know the full extent of the damage we have done as a species. Such a sensational discovery – made 4 decades after the fact – sends a clear message that there are more disasters (and more severe ones) lurking in our future. No doubt, many more discoveries will be made during our lifetimes and our children’s lifetimes, and hardly any of them will be of the feel-good kind.

Whether 10 years or 50 years from now, the time will come when we will have to make amends for the harm we have caused to this planet we call home – the only habitable chunk of rock we know of in all the vast cosmos – for the sake of the human race’s very survival. At some point we will need to find a way to reverse the damage done, but in the nearer term we need to mitigate it as best we can.

Of course, such an existential crisis is hard to put into context when we are faced with the all-too immediate, acute problems in our society and our economy (among other areas). Through this quagmire of crises and uncertainties, the wheels of industry must continue to turn if we are to sustain our modern way of life, and those wheels are, either directly or indirectly, powered by electricity.

On that note, and in the spirit of this handbook, I would like to set the scene by touching on some of the topics that I see as being fundamental to the transition to truly sustainable manufacturing. And, seeing as the South African government’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) is destined to be an essential ingredient in stabilising the country’s power grid in the short to medium term, I will do so by formulating an REIPPPP of my own.

1) Regulations

In 2021, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) raised the registration threshold for self-generating electricity providers from a paltry 1 MW to a more meaningful 100 MW. The move heralded a rush of market activity, with a total of 54 generation facilities being approved in the first quarter of 2022 alone, representing a total capacity of 29 148 MW and financed by roughly R452 million in investments.

On 19 April 2022, the department opened REIPPPP Bid Window 6, with the aim of procuring up to 2,6 GW of renewable capacity – 1,6 GW from wind and 1 GW from solar PV (photovoltaic) – to diversify the country’s energy mix and ensure energy security. The bid window will be open for interested independent power producers, project developers and financiers to submit their proposals by 11 August (subsequent to the time of writing).

The National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA) announced on 7 June that it had approved the issuance of registration certificates to 16 new power generation facilities, all of which were received during April and processed within 19 working days – each using renewable energy sources (15 are solar-powered and one is wind-powered). Provided NERSA maintains this level of urgency, and crucially ensures that due process is followed strictly and everything is done by the book, this bodes well for similar projects in the future.

2) Energy mix

Given the natural abundance of sunshine across most of our country for the majority of the year, solar PV is set to dominate the domestic renewable energy landscape, with wind power lagging behind due to its non-cyclical and unpredictable nature. Surprisingly, though, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Energy Centre’s report, ‘Statistics of utility-scale power generation in South Africa in 2021’, shows wind power ahead of solar PV, as seen in Figure 1.

However, as is generally the case with statistics, the devil is in the detail, or rather the qualifying statements: it should be noted that these statistics are somewhat skewed in favour of wind power thanks to Eskom’s Sere wind farm, which supplies up to 100 MW, as well as the fact that these figures are for the wholesale market only. In other words, they exclude self-consumption of embedded plants, which are almost exclusively solar-based and designed around meeting the energy needs of a single facility.

As illustrated, the status quo was largely maintained in 2021, with coal dominating the energy mix at 81,3% of the 227 TWh of total system load met, and PV, wind and concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP) contributing just 6,6% combined. It will be interesting to compare this side-by-side when the 2024 statistics are compiled, as the three projects mentioned below should be up and running by then – and quite possibly more as-yet unannounced projects to boot.

3) Investment

Further to the points above, on 19 July this year, the DMRE announced the financial close of the first three projects under the Risk Mitigation Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (RMIPPPP). The three Scatec projects – Kenhardt 1, 2 and 3 – require more than R16 billion to finance construction and development of the combined solar PV (photovoltaic) and battery storage facilities in the Northern Cape.

The new plants are expected to be operational by the end of January 2024, and will become the first dispatchable renewable energy projects in the country, with Eskom as the designated buyer for the resulting capacity, energy and ancillary (dispatchable generation refers to sources of electricity that can be programmed on demand at the request of power grid operators, according to market needs). The three projects are 49% South African-owned, have committed to 40% local content during the construction and operation phases, and will create close to 5000 job opportunities for South African citizens (measured in job-years) during said phases. All of which goes to show that the market is ready and willing to take up the mantle so sorely neglected by Eskom – and investors are waiting in the wings with capital in hand to finance projects of this scale.

There are two caveats hidden in those numbers, however. First, 40% local content is not really that much, although it is understandable given that most solar panels installed in SA come from overseas – there is currently only one domestic solar panel manufacturer, to the best of my knowledge, and it’s doubtful whether it has the production capacity to furnish such large projects. Second, “49% South African-owned” translates to “51% foreign-owned” (by Scatec itself, which is based in Norway) meaning that we, as a country, will be minority shareholders of three very important and very expensive pieces of energy infrastructure that will be powered by our 100% South African-owned sunlight.

4) Political will – and willpower

To enact systemic change toward a more sustainable future, it is essential that those in the corridors of power participate proactively in the process, and with absolute transparency and integrity. State capture has taught us all too well what can happen when the political elite are allowed to run roughshod over government institutions and bypass regulatory checks and balances for the sake of their own self-interests.

Also, don’t be stupid. If you can’t manage that, at least don’t treat us like we’re stupid, or say stupid things in public – I’m looking at you, Minister Gwede Mantashe and President Cyril Ramaphosa. The cause of my ire is best summed up by a single utterance that reportedly escaped Ramaphosa’s lips while addressing a recent South African Communist Party (SACP) conference in his capacity as ANC president: “Comrade Gwede Mantashe, in dealing with this problem of energy, has said ‘President, why don’t we set up…another state-owned entity so that we lessen our risk just as they are exposed in one entity,’ and I’ve said I agree with him because the state must continue to play a key role.”

I have to check my objectivity at the door on this point, because that suggestion is analogous to a doctor treating a patient’s STD by infecting them with another STD. No. More. Eskoms.

5) Pervasive conservatism

It is safe to say that our energy crisis, or rather crises, have long since exceeded the threshold of public awareness and become a bane of our lives and businesses. Not that we really need concrete numbers to confirm what we already know from having lived through it, but the CSIR recently reported that Eskom had cut 2276 GWh of electricity in 2022, versus the record-setting 2521 GWh last year – and that was only at the midway point of 2022.

What is encouraging is that, for the most part, people have become more aware of their energy consumption, and combined with the exacerbating factor of rising electricity prices, have grown more conservative in their usage. We are thus likely to see growing enthusiasm from consumers for tools that let them monitor and manage their consumption – pay-as-you-go being the most obvious one.

Industry remains the predominant electricity consumer in the country, consuming roughly half of the total power generated annually. Here, too, there are encouraging signs that we’re at a tipping point where companies are starting to realise that using (and recovering) energy in a sustainable manner is good for the bottom line, over and above scoring them environmental, social and governance (ESG) points.

6) Proven solutions plus pioneering technologies

There are as many ways of generating electricity as there are sources of energy, but it is easy to confuse ‘generating’ with ‘creating’. As we know from the First Law of Thermodynamics, energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed. Ever since the waterwheel was invented for grinding grain, humankind has sought to harness different sources of energy and developed ever more ingenious techniques to put it to work.

Today, electricity is our preferred form of energy owing to the ease and immediacy with which it can be transmitted, making centralised generation the most efficient method of deployment at large scales. Of all the energy sources we have learned to tap – nuclear, hydro, wind, solar, etc. – coal has long been the most popular choice by virtue of its abundance, the relative ease with which it can be mined, and its energy conversion efficiency. As a basis for comparison, modern coal-fired power plants have electric conversion efficiencies exceeding 46%, whereas solar cell efficiency is typically below 20%.

But generating and transmitting electricity is only the beginning of its journey; making the most effective use of it requires ways of storing it, to be meted out as and when required. Common ways of doing this in an industrial setting include pumped hydroelectric, compressed air, flywheels, electrochemical batteries and thermal energy storage. While we can expect incremental advances in these technologies across the board in the years to come, no ‘killer app’ is coming anytime soon that is sufficiently clean, efficient and scalable to compete with them.

The most exciting, albeit speculative, prospect on the distant horizon is fusion energy. The European research consortium, EUROfusion, is implementing an ambitious roadmap for fusion research beyond ITER, involving all EU fusion laboratories, universities and industry (ITER is an international nuclear fusion research and engineering megaproject aimed at creating energy by replicating the fusion processes of the Sun, on Earth). The main objective is the development of a concept design for a Demonstration Fusion Power Plant (DEMO), due to come into operation around the middle of this century. DEMO aims to demonstrate the production of net electricity, the feasibility of operation with a closed-tritium fuel cycle, and the adoption of maintenance systems capable of achieving adequate plant availability.

7) Pollution

We’ve all seen nature documentaries and news segments showing how widespread human-generated pollutants have become, and the devastating effects they can have on living organisms and entire ecosystems. Activists have long campaigned for a global shift away from our almost ubiquitous use of single-use plastics to more environmentally friendly, biodegradable forms of packaging, but other than the odd half-hearted publicity stunt, their cause has lacked champions in the form of the largest producers of plastic waste. In fact, according to the Plastic Waste Makers Index, more than half of the ‘throwaway’ single-use plastic that ends up as waste worldwide is produced by just 20 companies.

There are ways of using discarded waste as a source of energy, such as mass burn facilities and refuse-derived fuel systems, and energy recovery from the combustion of municipal solid waste is a key part of the non-hazardous waste management hierarchy, but energy recovery still ranks below source reduction and recycling/reuse.

Only one large-scale waste-to-energy plant currently exists in South Africa – New Horizons Waste to Energy in Athlone, Western Cape, which was launched in 2017 at a cost of R400 million and processes between 500 and 600 tonnes of general waste a day. Although that’s better than nothing, it’s hardly more than a token gesture considering the country produces in the region of 55 000 tonnes of waste every 24 hours.

In closing

Industrialisation as a concerted endeavour has literally changed the face of our planet, and not exclusively in good ways. What we now call the First Industrial Revolution (from around 1760 to 1840) marked the introduction of the factory system itself, but was characterised by inhumane treatment of workers akin to indentured servitude.

The Second Industrial Revolution, from the late 19th to early 20th centuries, was more about mobility and connectedness, albeit in more primitive forms than we know today – its major contributions being extensive railroad and telegraph networks, as well as widespread electrification.

The Third Industrial Revolution saw the advent and rapid advancement of digital technologies, gaining pace in the late 20th century and culminating in significant developments in computing and communication technologies that surpassed our own brains’ capabilities, at least when applied to a narrow spectrum of tasks.

And now we find ourselves in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, characterised by artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, connectivity to just about anything from almost anywhere, on-demand cloud services, et al.

In 1962, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Our never-ending pursuit of progress has seen us reach a point where our technology would surely be looked upon as magical to those participants of the First Industrial Revolution, if we were to travel back in time a mere 250 years.

On that note, I shall step aside and invite you to read on to discover some of the latest magic tricks the industry has up its sleeves.


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