On the handful of occasions I have met her, Energy Minister Dipuo Peters has been a model of niceness. Nice is not a word that everyone likes – often those to whom the term seldom applies. It’s probably not a parameter in Peters’ employment contract. But it is an admirable quality to cultivate.
However, it is not how I would sum up Peters’ public response 10 days ago to comments espousing the benefits of wind energy by Mainstream Renewable Energy chief executive Eddie O’Connor. It seemed out of character.
She rejected “with contempt” his suggestion that wind was the only source of energy, and said he should realise “we cannot elevate wind power above or at the expense of other energy sources”. She asked him to be explicit if he was attempting to lobby the cabinet.
Her response may simply reflect an African energy department irritated at being told how to do business by vocal European players in the wind industry. But it did seem to lean on the heavy side, particularly as O’Connor did not tout wind as the single solution.
There is unofficial talk of government displeasure at the white face of the wind industry. Wind developers in South Africa are white-dominated, and this is reflected in the composition of the board of the SA Wind Energy Association (its six members are all white men).
The wind industry sees the race card as a red herring. One developer says there is currently too much policy uncertainty to secure empowerment partners, but this will change significantly once licences are near to being awarded.
Licence criteria for wind farms currently under development by the National Energy Regulator of SA in fact stipulate that proposals not meeting minimum requirements for broad-based black economic empowerment will be disqualified.
It is worth pointing out that an absence of local empowerment partners has not at this stage stopped the government or Eskom from talking to international nuclear companies with their eyes on a fleet of nuclear plants on South African terrain.
One also can’t dismiss the observation that many South African political leaders, or members of their families, have financial interests in the mining industry, which has much to lose from a focused switch away from fossil fuels towards renewable sources. Those links haven’t yet been forged in the renewable energy space.
Of course, there is as much potential for fishy business in the renewable energy industry as there is in any other. Instead of Medupi and Hitachi, picture a solar plant, or a string of wind farms, and a consortium of equipment suppliers with links to a ruling party.
Renewable energy is clearly no magic panacea for all of South Africa’s problems.
But it’s an obvious place to start if our goal is to ensure the next generation of South Africans have sufficient quantities of clean water, affordable access to energy and a chance to help prevent global warming.
In the meantime, the public has to decide whether to believe South African wind developers’ pledge that they can deliver 7 000MW of wind power at any given time without back up, or Eskom’s rebuttal that it doesn’t buy the argument that wind always blows somewhere sometime.
It is exactly this kind of bunfight that made it so reassuring to hear the Energy Department’s promise last week to make public the evaluation criteria for selecting a preferred energy-mix scenario that is currently under development.