The importance of winning South African hearts and minds

Consolidating wind power’s early success

When the REIPPPP was launched in August 2011, the wind industry in South Africa had just spent the best part of fifteen years working ceaselessly to install a cumulative 10 MW of wind power in the country. 

The going wasn’t easy, and if the Darling National Demonstration Wind Farm ‘demonstrated’ anything, it was how hard it can be to make wind power succeed in the country. Just the EIA took eight years and two High Court cases to get approved.  Years had been spent advocating a Feed-in Tariff Scheme (“REFIT”) and the joy when it was announced was shortly thereafter followed by the numbing realisation that it wouldn’t be implemented.

In that time, it would have been easy to conclude that we were really back to square one. What we only discovered much later was that Government’s ambition for wind power had been greatly expanded, from an aggregate of about 400 MW to much more. Nor did we know early on that superb legal and transactional expertise had been enlisted to ensure the success of the REIPPPP (or ‘REBID’ as it was soon known with reference to the abandoned REFIT).

Looking forward at that moment in time, it would have been inconceivable to think that four years later, the wind industry in the country would be a ZAR 70 billion giant with 1,053 MW commissioned and another 2,200 MW firmly on the way. Nor that ZAR 7 billion would have been set aside for socio-economic and enterprise development around nascent windfarms. Nor that wind power would avoid load shedding to the extent that it would cost the country less than zero on a net basis.

The past four years have seen all these unexpected success stories manifest. It’s happened so quickly that the general South African public knows only a little more about wind power than they did in 2010. Unless one lives near a wind farm, this technology in South Africa is still peripheral to one’s everyday life.

But it’s becoming real. People drive past wind farms when they go on holiday and even fly over them on business trips, as they prepare to land. Public opinion is becoming more informed and generally more extreme: Supporters of this green technology are ever more vocal while opponents are likewise finding their voice. As technological advances make very high penetrations of renewable energy ever more feasible and affordable, entities and individuals with vested interest in conventional technologies resist the advance of wind power more strongly.   

It’s clear that all considered, wind power is overwhelmingly positive for South Africa. Any discussion of its future role based on fact rather than myth will be an easy one for SAWEA and its members to prevail in.  Wind’s greatest enemy is outdated perceptions, myths and pre-conceived ideas about wind power.  In certain cases also misinformation.

We are entering a phase where public relations will fundamentally determine the size of the industry going forward. The general public needs to believe that wind power is their friend. For this to happen, they must be reached effectively, armed with the facts and the good news stories.

This in turn means that SAWEA will need to harness the human and financial resources for a much expanded PR initiative. Such a plan has been developed, is at an advanced stage and will be rolled out during 2016.

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