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Alternate Energy Sources – Part 2

In the previous entry, two alternative energy sources were briefly detailed; Namely, utilising solar energy and generators on a smaller scale within a household or small enterprise environment.

The following sources of energy are employed on a much larger scale and are at present being investigated to combat the significant energy shortage experienced in South Africa, where an estimated 10 million South Africans are currently without access to energy.

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Natural Gas (Hydraulic Fracturing)

Although estimates vary, it is believed that South Africa has one of the largest recoverable shale gas deposits in the world, located in the Karoo area. Explorations into hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, came about as a result of years of commercial interest following the discovery of gas-bearing rock formations that hinted at the potential for shale gas extraction, as well as alternative energy creation strategies being investigated to solve the growing energy crisis. The discovery and potential production of commercial and shale gas is seen as a breakthrough in the gas and oil industry for South Africa.

Essentially, the process of extracting the natural gas from the shale rock layers involves fracturing the solid layers that trap it. This occurs by drilling deep boreholes into the rock to access the shale deposits and pumping immense quantities of water and chemicals at high pressure into the cavities. The high-pressured solution fractures the rock, releasing the shale gas.

Proponents feel that in conjunction with significant capital investment and a budget large enough to maintain infrastructure, fracking could have immense economic benefits for the country and yield profitable returns. Although economic recover-ability is difficult to predict without further evidence and investigation into the real costs of extraction vs the wholesale price fetched for natural gas, shale gas is a cleaner, cheaper and less environmentally damaging energy source than coal.  Between 85 and 90% of South Africa’s electricity is generated from coal. Utilising shale gas as an additional fossil fuel would eventually reduce the need for coal and oil, lowering harmful greenhouse emissions and providing a more sustainable energy solution. The venture could have a positive impact on the high national unemployment rate with the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs. But at what cost?

The extraction of shale gas could have a detrimental effect and cause irreparable damage to an already fragile ecosystem under threat. The greatest concern is the impact that the entire operation will have on the biodiversity of the region, the groundwater reservoirs, viability of agricultural land and food production, local water supply and significant cultural disturbances within the local population. There has been momentous protesting against the shale gas explorations proposed by various oil companies, and heated debates continue on the subject. If the exploration results provide worthwhile benefits, environmental impacts will be assessed before commencement. Alternative, less damaging solutions to the energy shortage are currently being investigated.

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Wind Turbines

Wind power is recognised as one of the fastest growing sources of renewable energy in the world. It is believed that wind turbines can produce enough energy to power between 150 and 400 households, which would alleviate a significant amount of pressure off the national grid.

It is a safe, pollution-free, cost effective energy source that is considered a sustainable alternative to current fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Fossil fuels are one of the main contributors to the global warming crisis as they produce harmful greenhouse gasses. This “green” electricity source produces minimal noise pollution and no toxic pollutants, and is considered renewable because it can be regenerated indefinitely.

The wind is converted from kinetic energy into electricity by use of a wind turbine. Wind propels the three blades of the turbine, known as rotors, into action which in turn powers a generator. The generator converts the wind energy into electricity. The main concern for wind turbines is their visual impact. On average, the turbines are up to 20m tall due to wind speeds increasing with altitude and in the absence of windbreaks. Although their environmental impact is low, they require large, open areas such as shorelines and open plains to optimally utilise wind strength – an example being the commercial wind farms in the Western Cape.

There is rising concern that the turbines may have an impact on local bird populations, however further environmental assessments and investigations into migratory patterns before construction would greatly reduce this.

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In Conclusion

Opponents have stated that renewable energy is not viable or reliable, but with demand for energy as high as it is supply costs for renewable energy sources are already radically less than what they once were. The infrastructure and technology are in place, and South Africa’s climate supports the generation of renewable energy, particularly where solar and wind power are concerned. A combination of many different renewable energy sources will ensure that there will always be a sustainable supply of energy.

A gradual transition towards a combination of alternative energy sources will remedy the energy crisis by alleviating pressure on the national grid and improving the economy.