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Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency

Author: Glynn Morris ~ Agama Energy (Pty) Ltd

( Article Type: Overview )

All of us use energy services in our daily lives. Many of these are based on grid electricity, which is essentially clean and convenient at the point of use in your home or office. However, grid electricity is only one form of energy and it has some rather significant disadvantages – one of which is that in South Africa it is derived from non-renewable and environmentally problematic sources of energy such as coal. And, as it turns out, our coal has particularly high local and global environmental impacts, being one of the dirtiest coals in the world.

Advantages of conventional grid electricity:

  • Convenience
  • Low cost – to the consumer
  • It is clean at the point of use
  • Reliability
  • Wide range of interchangeable appliances available – both new and secondhand
  • Status and a sense of modernity.

Disadvantages of conventional grid electricity:

  • High consumption of non-renewable resources such as coal, uranium and gas
  • High use of water in a water poor country (each unit of electricity generated consumes 1.25 litres of water)
  • Health and safety issues relating to coal/uranium mining and gas/oil drilling and refining
  • Land use issues relating to coal/uranium mining
  • Damaging environmental effects of emissions – greenhouse gases and particulates
  • Waste disposal issues relating to ash (from coal) and nuclear waste
  • Visual impacts of overhead transmission lines across the country and distribution lines in towns
  • Centralisation of control and the associated dependencies.

What are the alternatives?

Implicit in the question is the awareness that there are different options – other than electricity from Eskom or a local authority – i.e. you actually do have a choice. Secondly, it implies that each option is better or worse than others depending on the criteria – such as cost, convenience, environmental impacts, etc. Modern Renewable Energy Systems and Energy Efficient Options are technically mature, commercially established, readily accessible and they are more or less just as expensive (or cheap) as the conventional option of grid.

Typical renewable energy and energy efficiency options include:

  • Natural lighting of your building, by allowing sunlight to enter the structure in a controlled and pleasant manner
  • Solar heating of your building by orientation and better placement and shading of windows • Solar water heating
  • Solar and/or wind generated electricity (whether connected to the grid or not).

Some of the benefits include:

  • Energy savings – you can save energy, and hence natural resources, which benefits everyone.
  • Financial savings – by using less energy (energy efficiency) and substitution of one form of (non-renewable and expensive) energy to a another (renewable or cheaper) form.
  • Reduced consumption of our natural resources.
  • Operational security – renewable energy systems can be designed to provide better reliability than conventional grid systems, such as power for telecommunications, navigational beacons, etc.
  • Diversity of supply – diversification of supply means there is less risk of experiencing a total loss of power, due to the sole source of energy (electricity) going down for some reason.
  • Reduced or deferred infrastructure costs – including generation, transmission, distribution and maintenance.
  • Environmental benefits – renewable energy systems do not degrade the environment to the same extent as nonrenewable systems.
  • Social benefits – increased employment opportunities through manufacture, installation and operation of renewable energy systems.

The South African government has developed and published its energy policy in the form of the White Paper on Energy Policy of the Republic of South Africa (December 1998) and a White Paper on Renewable Energy (November 2003). These policy documents officially endorse and recommend the greater use of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

What can you do to begin the process of shifting away from the use of non-renewable energy – Where does one start?

It is always difficult to start on a new path, but one of the benefits of renewable energy and energy efficiency is that you can start small and transform your energy utilization patterns and energy service systems slowly and within the constraints of your budget. The more you implement changes, the more monthly disposable income will become available (from the savings you make) for further investments in your energy transformation.

Introducing energy efficiency measures

Before looking at the ways in which you can transform your use of conventional grid energy, it is important to remember that, in terms of more sustainable energy efficiency practices, there is nothing that can beat the benefits of reducing your need for energy in the first place, through energy conservation and energy efficiency. Any activity which reduces the demand for energy saves our natural resources and also reduces wastes and emissions. Even homes or businesses, which currently use renewable energy, really do benefit from energy conservation and energy efficiency.

  • Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs in lights which are used more than three hours per day.
  • Install a timer switch and insulation on your geyser or convert your geyser to an instantaneous water heater (with no heat losses from stored water).
  • Draught-proofing your building to reduce uncontrolled heat losses through air movement.
  • Insulate your building.
  • Maintain good fridge habits, including keeping the door seal in good condition; keeping your fridge 75% full all the time, with water bottles, to minimise the amount of warm air that enters the fridge to replace cooled air which ‘falls’ out when you open the door.

Introducing renewable energy systems

The key to the most cost-effective use of renewable energy systems is the matching of the energy services that you require with the capacities and characteristics of available technologies and systems. This is really true for any technology – computers, cars, music systems, etc.

  • Assess your real energy service needs (after having reduced the consumption of your existing energy supplies to more realistic levels, through energy efficiency measures and increased use of more efficient electrical appliances as above).
  • Substitute or expand your range of energy supplies to utilise these more effectively, e.g. using solar cooking or bottled gas for cooking rather than electricity.
  • Start to increase your overall use of renewable energy to reduce your use (and dependence) on non-renewable energy supplies.
  • Monitor (and then manage) your consumption and the costs of this consumption (including social and environmental costs if you feel up to it) on an ongoing basis.
  • For access to information and suppliers, the best place to start is by contacting the Sustainable Energy Society of Southern Africa (as listed in the Directory). The initial questions that you should enquire about include:
    • The initial costs of supply and installation
    • The operating and maintenance requirements (even renewable energy systems need to be maintained)
    • The levels of service which are offered
    • The implications of upgrading (or downgrading) as your needs change
    • The costs of ongoing maintenance
    • The quality assurance for the equipment and for the installation contractor.

We hope you enjoy the experience of taking responsibility for your own energy service needs. Start small and play. The risks are small by comparison with entrusting your (and the Earth’s) future to others. Stand up to the fact that one third of all known species on Earth will have been wiped out by 2050, due primarily to global warming as a result of our current practices.

Associated Sustainable Development Articles: