CEO Blog

by Johan van den Berg, CEO of SAWEA

Johan van den Berg is the CEO of the South African Wind Energy Association, the Chair of the South African Renewable Energy Council and the African Private Sector Focal Point for the Africa-EU Energy Partnership. A barrister, he has spent eighteen years in dispute resolution; environmental mediation; climate change avoidance/emissions trading and renewable energy in Southern Africa. He is a member of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Energy.

Wind Power and the imperative to address climate change

The ambition is to cap warming at between 1.5 and 2 degrees centigrade over a pre-industrial- revolution base. It is accepted that renewable energy has a critical role to play, with wind an anchor technology in the renewables fold. There is also a growing acceptance that the international community will have to move to complete decarbonisation within the lifetimes of many of the participants at COP21.  Perhaps by 2050.

The placement of wind power so centrally in the resolution of the climate dilemma provides a good opportunity for reflection on how the relationship between wind power and climate change has developed over the years, and provides a helpful method for measuring the maturation of our industry.

Wind power made its meaningful debut as a source of electrical power in the eighties, inspired largely by the oil crises of the seventies.  For a millennium before, it was used to generate mechanical energy that ground grain, pump water and saw wood. In the late 19th century wind power was used to generate electricity. As a source of electrical energy, the driver in the eighties seems to have been predominantly one of energy independence and energy sufficiency. Thus, cost was not the primary concern.

By the late nineties, climate change was a very big international issue and there was a “pull” factor being exerted: how can we get renewable energy to be cheap enough, large enough and sufficiently predictable that we can move away from fossil fuels? Wind was part of this, arguably the largest part. At this time, climate imperatives and wind power were joined at the hip; the one created the business case for the other. 

Two more decades have passed, global installed wind power has grown by about 25% per annum in that period, and COP21 in Paris has just come out again and made a business case for wind power. The question however: how reliant is wind power still on that trusted friend for its growth?

The answer is much less, to not at all. In South Africa, wind power is now about 40% cheaper than new coal power produced by the national utility. The growth in procured capacity from 10 MW to 3,3 GW in just four years did not need the climate imperative for its success. Sure, it helped, and certainly the imminent COP17 in Durban paved the way at the time. But the rapid uptake and the expansion of Government’s renewables ambitions was due to the simple fact that wind has become a no-brainer.  It takes about 4 times less time to erect that new coal and maybe 6 times less time than nuclear. It’s far cheaper and infinitely safer than both. It’s modular and can better use existing grid capacity. It’s all built with private money and does not ask Government lay out billions for a new build programme.  

Similar developments have occurred in other countries, where wind power is now winning technology-agnostic auctions for new installed capacity. The wind industry has matured and reached a stage where its business case speaks for itself.

The heralds a new phase in the synergetic relationship between wind power and climate protection. Both partners are adults now, both are able to support the other. Wind power has come of age.