Energy in Africa


South Africa’s answer to global warming?
Melany Bendix
Published: 21-MAR-06

South Africa currently releases the highest amount of greenhouse gases in Africa and holds the none too prestigious title of being the world’s 13th largest contributor to global warming.

While the country has committed to reducing toxic releases, little focus has been placed on the transport sector which currently accounts for about 24 percent of South Africa’s total carbon dioxide emissions. Experts now fear that these emissions will rise by 82 percent by 2020 if no immediate action is taken.

The City of Cape Town has taken heed of these shocking predictions and subsequently commissioned an independent panel to investigate whether non-polluting alternatives such as biofuels can be successfully introduced.

The panel concluded that of the two biofuels available - biodiesel (for all diesel engines) and bioethanol (for petrol vehicles) – biodiesel is the most suitable option because it is a mature technology which requires little or no engine conversion and can be easily integrated with existing infrastructure.

Biodiesel is a clean-burning, biodegradable and renewable fuel that can be produced from oil seed crops such as sunflower, soy and groundnut. Seed bearing trees such as Jatropha are also good sources.

Jatropha is favoured because it is tough, drought resistant and frost hardy. Although it is not indigenous to southern Africa, it grows well in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and is already being used for biodiesel production in West African countries such as Mali, Ghana and Nigeria.

However, there are concerns that Jatropha may become a pest alien species if widely spread, and thorough environmental impact assessments need to be undertaken before it can be endorsed.

Biodiesel is made through a chemical process called transesterification, whereby glycerin is separated from the vegetable oil. The process leaves behind two products: methyl esters (the chemical name for biodiesel) and glycerin, which can be sold as a by-product for soap and other products. Biodiesel contains no petroleum, but it can be blended to create a biodiesel blend.

Aside from reducing toxic emissions by about 70 percent and thereby improving air quality, biodiesel also has the potential to reduce South Africa’s dependency on crude oil imports for 60 percent of its total liquid fuel requirements.

According to the Department of Science and Technology (DST), South Africa has the potential to produce enough energy crops for about 1,4 billion litres of biodiesel per year. This quantity would replace about 20 percent of the seven billion litres of diesel used annually, which would lessen dependence on crude oil imports and in turn soften the negative economic effects of crude oil price spikes.

In addition, biodiesel has significant employment potential, especially in rural areas where it can stimulate agricultural production and create job opportunities in the associated activities of crop collection, processing, manufacturing and distribution.

For example, an independent report by the DST found that a plant operating 300 days a year and producing 8 000 litres of biodiesel per day from sunflower oil could create about 290 000 permanent jobs.

Why then, with all these positive aspects, has uptake been so sluggish?

One of the panel members, Greg Austin of sustainable energy company AGAMA Energy, acknowledges that biodiesel technology has a few minor setbacks, but he maintains these can be easily solved.

“Vehicle manufacturers typically only guarantee vehicles which use a recommended fuel type, so they would need to come to the party and agree to include biodiesel in their warranties,” says Austin.

“Although no major engine modification is needed,” he adds, “biodiesel is a more powerful solvent than conventional diesel, and therefore it may release deposits on the fuel tank’s walls and pipes. Cleaning tanks and pipes before using biodiesel and inspecting fuel filters during initial usage will solve this problem.”

Minor glitches set aside, the higher cost of biodiesel remains the biggest hindrance.

Sasol Oil is planning to introduce biodiesel into its production, but Managing Director, Hannes Botha, says it has to be economically competitive first. “To make the project work, special dispensation is needed from government and a market is needed for the fuel,” he explains.

The economic arguments for introducing biodiesel become significantly stronger as crude oil prices rise and therefore governments’ intervention is duly justified, especially when taking into account biodiesel’s environmental bonuses and large potential for job creation.

The European Union promotes biofuels via a directive which aims at a 2 percent market share by 2005 and 5,75 percent by 2010, and the US has eliminated the cost differences by issuing a tax credit for biofuels. Similarly, India is advocating biodiesel uptake by supporting production as part of its National Indian Biodiesel Mission which aims to replace 20 percent of conventional diesel with biodiesel by 2012.

The South African government has already authorised a 30 percent cut in fuel tax for biofuels and a host of supportive legislation sanctioning alternative fuel sources does exist, but the panel asserts that tax breaks need to be coupled with incentives for using biodiesel and penalties for not converting to renewable fuels to ensure uptake is widespread.

This incentive and penalty scheme underpins the panel’s comprehensive implementation plan for solving the marketplace dilemma. “The basic strategy,” says Craig Haskins of the Cape Town City’s Development Services department, “is three pronged: stimulate good quality production of biodiesel, lobby large-scale diesel users to convert and convince retailers to supply biodiesel.”

Haskins points out that the effectiveness of each of these goals is interdependent on the success of the other two. “Key to the success of all three, is a large scale awareness and education campaign amongst potential users,” he adds.

Austin agrees, and says large companies and municipalities who use diesel for rail, road and sea transport should be targeted first, as this would be easier than trying to persuade masses of individual vehicle owners to convert.

But before the City of Cape Town can start preaching conversion, a pilot project must first be undertaken. “The panel’s report was commissioned to outline the potential. Now that we know what this is, we must test the research on a practical level,” explains Haskins.

Government has yet to announce any formal biodiesel projects, but Haskins hopes the city’s example will spur some action.

Meanwhile, biodiesel supporters remain confident that it is only a matter of time before the obstacles to implementation are overcome and the benefits of this renewable fuel spreads throughout South Africa.

“The stage is set for a great deal of activity in the coming years as options of biodiesel hit the South African conscience and way of life,” concludes Austin.

This report was first published in Energy in Africa Magazine, November 2005 - January 2006. To subscribe click here

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