A panel of experts under the leadership of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has submitted a proposal to the minister of environmental affairs to declare eMalahleni in Mpumalanga, Klerksdorp in North West and Beaufort West in the Western Cape as preferred locations for wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) power projects.

This could result in significant savings for developers through an expedited, simplified environmental approval process and, as a result, decrease the cost of buying renewable energy – which is ultimately paid by consumers.

This comes as government opened a dialogue with independent power producers (IPPs) about ways to reduce the cost of energy, which is a stumbling block for economic growth.

Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe gave the sector the assurance that renewable energy will continue to play a crucial role in the country’s future energy mix and is central in the long-awaited Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) that his department is set to serve before cabinet this week.

According to Kabi Solar director Mike Levington, a member of the expert panel, the submission to the minister of environmental affairs was done at the request of the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) following a two-year process.

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It is the second phase of a strategic environmental assessment to identify renewable energy development zones (Redzs) after eight such Redz were gazetted early in 2018.

Levington says the department received around 900 applications for approval of environmental impact assessments (EIAs) in the first bid round of the Department of Energy’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme in 2011.

This, from only one infrastructure sector, totally overwhelmed the available resources and led to a decision to identify corridors through strategic environmental assessments, where an expedited environmental approval process could work.

These areas were identified taking into consideration environmental sensitivities, the capacity of the Eskom grid to accommodate renewable projects, the preference of developers, and socio-economic needs.

Declining mining areas

Levington says that at the time the possibility of utilising declining mining areas was raised, but was not included in the criteria. In this second phase it is specifically being considered, in addition to the earlier considerations.

He says there are several advantages to using declining mining areas for renewable energy projects.

For one thing, the chances of conflict about land use are reduced.

Levington says concern is often raised that the use of large areas – for solar photovoltaic (PV) energy generation in particular – undermines agriculture and therefore food security. In declining mining areas this does not arise because that land was not used for agriculture.

In addition, the Eskom grid provides good connections to the gold mining areas on the West Rand and the coal mining regions on the Mpumalanga Highveld, which means expensive grid strengthening to accommodate renewable projects might not be needed. These areas are also close to the places in the northern part of the country where demand is high, which reduces large technical losses associated with transmitting energy over long distances.

Then there’s the fact that developing renewable energy projects in declining mining areas could further mitigate against job losses. These projects could also use the well-developed light industrial sectors that previously supplied the mining industry, says Levington.

In 2017 the department asked the expert reference group to reconvene and identify additional Redzs, with reference to a just transition from coal-based to green energy.

Eight areas were considered, as shown below.

1. eMalahleni 2. Klerksdorp 3. Kuruman 4. Welkom 5. Beaufort West 6. Vredendal 7. Prieska 8. Pofadder

In the end, Klerksdorp and eMalahleni were proposed for solar PV and Beaufort West for both solar PV and wind energy projects.

Levington says this does not mean that developers are forced to develop in these zones only. If they do, they will however enjoy considerable benefits that could assist them in submitting more competitive bids.

In the development zones there is comfort that the EIA has been done and the grid connection is in place. Outside of the zones, developers will have to do a full EIA at their own risk before submitting a bid. That could cost up to R750 000 for solar PV projects, Levington says.

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The developer would also have to ensure grid access, bearing in mind that Eskom charges up to R100 000 for a cost estimate.

The minister of environmental affairs will now consult other government entities and consider the expert reference group’s proposal.

Levington expects that it could be confirmed in the government gazette by June next year.