Pathway to renewable energy: Lessons from the USA

By Maeder Stanley Osler

MOLWENI … DAGSÊ … GREETINGS…! ONCE UPON A TIME AND PLACE … seeking to develop a model of rural communication also means we need to think about energy, now and in the future. Comparisons with energy use in other countries, and in different kinds of settings, can clearly play a valuable role.

While we’re all caught up in the ‘dirty weather’ around Eishkom and its dire implications, also for us rural yokels, this guest item has brought immediate relief. Comparing our situation in various fields with those in other regions and other countries is often a valuable exercise. It can help us to identify areas of divergence but also areas of commonality, which can obviously help us in our search for viable and sustainable solutions.

Welcome to Dr Renfrew Christie, D Phil, Oxon, Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa, and member of the esteemed SA Academy of Science. His wide field of expertise has always included energy, also as a political prisoner in the old South Africa, and he is well positioned to help us address our concerns. (Look him up on Wikipedia as well as SA History Online.) Among others, he writes a regular energy newsletter, circulated to a community of informed and interested readers.

The other day, I asked him whether we could feature his insightful contributions from time to time. This was in the context of a few of us independent compatriots trying to build a project that could serve as a model of rural communication, including the Toverview site. He kindly agreed to our making use of his newsletters, which we start to do below.

Amid the current gnashing of teeth about Eskom, Days of Zondo, and other national conundrums, Renfrew offers a comparative perspective on future energy provision in a particular region in the USA. Minus our corruption octopus clutched on to Eskom, it clearly holds important insights for our beloved country, and certainly for other rural areas.

More specifically, he writes about PJM Interconnection, a regional transmission organization (RTO) that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in all or parts of 14 American states. What makes the comparison particularly relevant is that the population in the aea served by PJM is about the same as South Africa’s. However, its current generating capacity is 200 GigaWatts, compared to Eskom’s 29 GigaWatts !

I also consulted my son Miles, who is living and beavering away in the USA at present – I hoped he might also have a useful insight, given that he was in the same sort of area that Renfrew has written about. Wisely, he responded: ‘Thanks Dad. We can all learn from each other. And so we do and we don’t, round and round …’

Nevertheless, it struck me that (with a bit of tweaking here and there to take account of local conditions), the energy vision in the USA spelled out by Renfrew could also strike a chord in our polarised, pluralised and pulverised – but still beloved – land.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the fact that PJM is a private sector organisation and not a state or parastatal corporation … and that, against all advice, the ANC government has refused for three decades to give up the state monopoly on power generation. Following the Zondo Commission and the Ruyter Revelations, we all know why … But the energy crisis is starting to pry open its death grip on power, and surrender at least part of the sector to private enterprise. Let’s hope this trend keeps on gathering speed …

At the same time, the PJM experience warns that the transition to renewable energy will be slow, expensive and risky – a cold shower for those who think solar power will solve our problems overnight …



Dr Renfrew Christie

Dear colleagues

PJM Interconnection is a regional transmission organization (RTO) that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in all or parts of Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.

PJM operates a competitive wholesale electricity market, and manages the high-voltage electricity grid to ensure reliability for more than 65 million people.

Its long-term planning process provides a broad, interstate perspective that identifies the most effective and cost-efficient improvements to the grid to ensure reliability and economic benefits on a system-wide basis.

An independent Board oversees PJM’s activities. Effective governance and a collaborative stakeholder process help PJM achieve its vision: “To be the electric industry leader – today and tomorrow – in reliable operations, efficient wholesale markets, and infrastructure development.”

PJM includes the huge and fast growing data centre industry of Loudon, Virginia, the biggest on earth, which is eating large quantities of new electricity daily.

I attach PJM’s latest report on power stability in the course of the transition to changed power inputs and greatly increased electricity demand which are forecast in the north east of the USA to 2030. (To download the report, click here.)

It illustrates that even with a highly sophisticated system, with relatively very little corruption, the coming electricity source, storage and transmission changes are very risky.

PJM’s total generating capacity is around 200 GW. By comparison, at the time of writing, Eskom’s actual capacity is just under 29GW. The population served is almost the same: 65 million people versus South Africa’s 60 million people.

Note, in particular, that renewables are coming online much more slowly than expected; and that PJM requires ‘multiple’ megawatts of renewables to replace one megawatt of fossil fuel capacity. There are also substantial extra connection costs. Transition is expensive and risky.

PJM fears that with the expected low new entry of power generation, its reserve margins will drop from 23% now to 5% by 2030, or as low as 3% with the expected new electrification of the region.

PJM wants to achieve a high new entry of generation capacity, which would give less risky reserve margins in 2030 of 15%, or 12% with the new electrification. This is still significantly below the normal 23% of today.

PJM sees this drop in reserve margins as very risky, and  calls for urgent action to ‘shape the future of resource adequacy’.

South Africa and Eskom, kindly note the above, by candlelight in rolling blackouts …


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