SA should learn from the crisis in Japan

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Dr Ruth Rabinowitz discusses the benefits of SA’s Renewable Energy Feed in Tariff.

We regard weather and climate as phenomena that take place above the earth’s surface, forgetting that the earth consists of solid, liquid and gas connected by heat which converts one form of matter into another. Earth, air, fire and water are intimately connected.

Earthquakes originate in the bowels of the earth and would seem to be beyond the impact of our climate. But for some time, geologists and climatologist have warned that earthquakes would become more common and more violent. In 2009, a volcano specialist at University of Alberta, Patrick Wu and geologist Bill McGuire, professor of geological hazards at University College in London, warned that global warming would contribute to increased earthquakes and tsunamis. They alluded to the sensitivity of the earth’s crust to pressure changes caused by melting ice or by changed weight on the ocean floor: “When glaciers melt, the weight on the ocean floor is increased overall, while in some places it is reduced by the loss of weight of vast blocks of ice. The pressure changes have an effect on the grinding tectonic plates deep below the surface.”
Understanding the impact of earth’s elements on one another is almost as complex as understanding the way the universe arose and the science of climate is in its infancy, spurred on by the debate around climate change. Whether the change is caused by humans or by sun spots, it is becoming less a matter for dinner table conversation and more one demanding urgent lifestyle changes. Recognising the complexity of the issues should result in the injection of a moral component to our actions and to our tempering science with common sense.
As if global and financial meltdown were not enough, to add the prospect of nuclear meltdown during peace time must be something that every scientist and politician would want to prevent. Yet even as we prepare for COP17 and a Green Paper on climate change, the SA government is seriously considering a nuclear option to keep up with our growing need for electricity. Whatever the claims about the low cost of nuclear energy, those costs continue to rise together with all the contingent problems, even without the kind of catastrophe we are witnessing in Japan. Once the plant is introduced, it still needs uranium to be mined and bought and it always requires vigilant security measures. The sun’s energy remains free and its strength is increasing not decreasing, while the cost of solar conversion technology is rapidly coming down.
Wisely our ancestors looked to the sun as a source of power attributing it with god like status. Today we understand solar power so well that we don’t have to wait for nature to convert vegetation over millions of years into coal, from which we can release energy for work. We can go straight to the sun and instantly create power stations using concentrated solar power, or photo voltaic panels.
If we start with a concentrated solar power (CSP) industry now, long before the country is even ready to install a nuclear power plant, we will have plants operating and can have spearheaded the growth of a new industry with SA in the forefront. The argument that renewable energy cannot produce base load power is no longer valid. Neither wind nor CSP  can do so alone, but an integrated system of wind, CSP, PV, biogas, biomass and pumped storage would, even without a smart grid, provide at least double the power SA will tap from another coal fired power station. These solutions could be in place in two to three years, legislation allowing.  We would also be making better use of our dry and wet waste, as these would be used to back up CSP or PV plants in hybrid, decentralised solutions which will produce energy security and jobs in SA.
In 2009 South Africa introduced a Renewable Energy Feed in Tariff (REFIT). It has proved around the world to be the best financial mechanism for stimulating investment in RE. Investors have already committed billions as they wait restlessly for a fair power purchase agreement to oversee the generation of electricity and its entry into the grid. That prospect is on our doorstep with the imminent implementation of a REFIT. Although the tariffs are unnecessarily high, reducing the amount of electricity that can be accepted into the grid with available funds, the flame will at last be lit and later carried across Africa.
Currently the trade in carbon is the most popular mechanism whereby green initiatives are stimulated and polluting actions prejudiced. But the mere fact that the CDM enables polluters to pay others to be green makes it suspect. The added benefit it gives to certain businesses in addition to company profits, also creates resentment by those who feel the money paid for the CDM should rather go to developing countries to build green economies.
The REFIT offers an ideal vehicle for channelling funds that are pledged by the UNFCCC to support climate mitigation and adaptation in the developing world. Since a reduction in CO2 is the best contribution we could as humans make to climate change, a mechanism that impacts directly on such an outcome should be embraced by the managers of the fund.
In SA additional funding for the REFIT would enable the country to install all the RE for which it has capacity, dramatically reducing our carbon emissions which currently make us the 13th largest carbon polluter in the world .We could reduce our dependence on oil, coal and nuclear technology. There would be a transparent, measurable and accountable mechanism for stimulating job creation, mitigating climate change and catering to the real needs of people.  It might also lead to constructive cross border participation in the provision of integrated energy solutions for the continent.
Currently SA also struggles with the implementation of an energy efficiency program. Although taxes are levied they do not translate into funding for RE. We need a program that implements mandatory rating on electrical goods, requires energy inventories to be kept and imposes energy audits on businesses and municipalities. This would cut our energy usage by an estimated 30 %  and drastically reduce our atmospheric pollution. Add to this the adoption of a Green Energy Act that rationalizes national, provincial and local legislation, removing current muddles and contradictions in the legislative framework and SA would join those nations of the world who are leading the response to build a sustainable world.
Let us not overestimate the capacity of the planet to survive our ravaging, or to absorb our man made toxins. A common respect for the earth, among both climate sceptics and believers is urgently needed to heal the earth and keep it habitable.

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*Dr Ruth Rabinowitz is the director of MamaEarth an NGO that promotes healthy people on a healthy planet.
For an interesting breakfast with drafters of Green energy policy join MamaEarth at a breakfast at Monte Casino on the 11th April.
Tickets for SAAEA members are discounted 40% to R150

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