South African East London community blazes a trail for local wind power

23 August 2010 – With powerful wind gusts whipping across its plains, Emafengwini, a poor rural community in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, has become the new frontier for local power schemes.
On a cool and breezy stretch of land along the Indian Ocean, 147 km from the coastal town of East London, South Africa’s first community wind farm is being built, following the completion of an environmental impact assessment.
The Tsitsikamma wind farm project will implant 20 wind turbines, each 80 metres tall, over 7,000 hectares of Wittekleibosch farmland at a cost of 1 billion rand ($138 million). The windmills will each produce 2 megawatts of electricity, which is expected to light more than 400,000 homes, include those of the Mfengu community who own the land but don’t yet have access to electric power.
The Mfengus were forced off their land in 1977 and moved to Ciskei’s Keiskammahoek under the apartheid regime. They began negotiating for the return of their land in 1990 and, after four years of discussions and court applications, their bid succeeded. The farm was allocated to more than 100,000 families in 1994 under a government land reform programme.
The community remains extremely poor, however, and lacks work and education opportunities. The nearest school is at least 25km away. Unemployment is high and local people become desperate in times of drought.
They are looking to the wind project to help turn their fortunes around. It will be run by a consortium including the Tsitsikamma Community Trust, which represents them.
The trust will own at least 10 percent of the project’s equity, and receive an equivalent proportion of revenue during the plant’s 25-year lifespan.
Its partners are Exxaro Resources, Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas, the Danish Export Credit Fund, the Danish Industrialisation Fund for Developing Countries, Danish energy company Dong Energy, Denmark-based power producer European Energy and Eastern Cape Community Wind Energy.
The Danish Export Credit Fund will provide start-up loans for inputs and other materials, and Dong Energy will purchase carbon credits generated by the scheme.
“From the carbon trading, there will be money to build a clinic, a school, roads and water infrastructure and of course to bring electricity to the people,” explains Thobile Makamba, chairperson of the Tsitsikamma Community Trust.
The wind project was initiated by Port Elizabeth company Watt Energy, which is owned by Nelson Mandela Bay municipal councillor Mcebisi Msizi.
Msizi spent seven years in exile in Denmark during the apartheid era, and his contacts in the European country, a global leader in wind energy, are a key driver of the Tsitsikamma deal.
As a child growing up in Emafengwini village, one of Msizi’s chief memories is of the wind. It is so fierce – even on a calm summer’s day – it threatens to propel your car into the Tsitsikamma mountains. The area is judged to be the second windiest in the country, says Msizi.
The trust’s Makamba is hopeful the community will be transformed by the scheme. “We are going to contribute our land and the abundant wind we have here,” he says.
By 2013, the wind farm is expected to produce 40 megawatts of electricity, which will be sold to state-owned power company Eskom. It will be transferred to Eskom’s power grid through a new sub-station to be built nearby at an estimated cost of more than R100 million, explains Msizi.
“The aim is that the community will benefit from a share of the R14-million annual revenue, which will come from selling the electricity generated to Eskom at an agreed buy-back rate of R1.25 a kilowatt,” he says.
The project is also expected to create more than 1,500 jobs for local people in constructing roads, erecting the turbines and maintaining them once they are up. And it has brought people from different backgrounds – financiers, technology providers, entrepreneurs – together with the local community.
“We’ve created a new landmark,” says Makamba.
The scheme also brings the country a step closer to boosting its production of cleaner and renewable energy. South Africa experienced several blackouts last year due to a coal shortage, which left Eskom short of supply.
The government is aiming to produce 10,000 gigawatts of energy from renewable sources by 2013. It is estimated there are some 5,000 megawatts of wind power under development in South Africa, while the government has mandated the procurement of 40,000 megawatts by 2013.
As yet, the country has only seven commercial-sized wind turbines in operation, three at Eskom’s demonstration facility at Klipheuwel, north of Cape Town, and four at the private Darling wind farm to the city’s northwest.
If successful, the Tsitsikamma project may be duplicated elsewhere in the country. Watt Energy has already started discussions with Port Alfred, Hamburg and Coega, for example.
With demand for electricity outpacing infrastructure in South Africa, community-based renewable energy schemes like Tsitsikamma have considerable potential to help plug the country’s looming power deficit.