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The Darling Wind Farm - A Kick Start for Wind Power in South Africa?

In South Africa's West Coast region, an hour North of Cape Town you will find the sleepy village of Darling. More well known (if it is known at all) for its wild flowers and the residency of Africa's most famous white woman, Tannie Evita, Darling is set to become the birthplace of a revolution in South Africa's energy industry.

Not that South Africa really has an energy industry, in the sense that there is any competition for business. A single company, ESKOM, has a virtual monopoly on supplying electricity throughout the country, extending into other parts of Southern Africa. Up until now, the utility has contented itself with extracting the generous deposits of coal that lie deep underground, to fuel conventional power stations that provide electricity at a bargain price for most South Africans. With such a low cost and plentiful energy supply, the incentive to invest in alternative power sources is low.

But as the effect of Carbon Dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion on our climate became more well known across the globe, changes are afoot. All over the world, governments almost became obliged to issue statements and measures that promised to take global climate into account when formulating their policies, and proceeded to adhere to them with varying degrees of success.

Following the global trend, the Department of Minerals and Mines in South Africa published its White Paper on Energy Policy in 1998 expressing support for renewable energy with eloquent but vague proclamations like: "Government will work towards the establishment and acceptance of broad national targets for the reduction of energy-related emissions that are harmful to the environment and to human health" and "Government will ensure a balance between exploiting fossil fuels and maintenance of acceptable environmental requirements."

Shortly afterwards, the World Summit for Sustainable Development 2002 was entrusted to the South African Government by the UN - a chance to win a whole host of environmental gold stars, and investment, from visiting delegations.

All this excitement over renewable energy came at exactly the right time for Hermann Oelsner. Having moved to Darling from Johannesburg in the early '90s, he was immediately struck by the ferocity and consistency of the wind over the rolling hills of the Swartland landscape. The idea of building a wind farm to generate electricity for the local people turned into a mission. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research did the initial wind resource management and identified a suitable site 10km North of the village. In 1997, AN Windenergie GmbH Germany and Bonus Energy from Denmark provided technical input, the latter is one of the largest wind turbine manufacturers in the world. The expert opinion from all concerned was that is was a near-ideal site for a wind farm. In 2000 the Minister of Minerals and Energy declared it a national demonstration project for the WSSD 2002, stating that the wind farm would "test and or inform decisions around replicable and or novel approaches to recognised energy and environmental problems and act as a platform for replication by the public." So far everything was going according to plan.

Mr Oelsner's company, The Oelsner Group, founded and remain the main shareholder of Darling Independent Power Producer (DarlIPP), which will sell the energy from the wind farm when it is completed. Financial modelling undertaken in 1999 showed that based on a total contract value of R40million for a 5 MW wind farm and an IRR of 8%, cost of electricity generated would be R0.38 per kWhr. Doubling up to 10MW would reduce the cost to R0.33 per kWhr. To sell electricity to the local municipality at the current market price of R0.20, the project would need a reduction in capital cost through grant funding of R20million.

There were some initial delays in the project when it became clear that no Power Purchase Agreement could be agreed upon between DarlIPP and ESKOM. However, a favourable agreement has been reached with Cape Town municipality, who have agreed to buy the power, paying a little extra for it in their efforts to reach their self-imposed target of 20% of their electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020.

This target is higher than the national government's, and illustrates the way in which local governments can sometimes have just as much influence on the future of renewable energy schemes as the national government.

"Think globally, act locally" are the words of Rene Dubos and are a mantra for all sustainable development implementers. In order for a project to succeed, the local community must be involved and consulted at every stage of development, but at the same time the global implications of the development should be taken into consideration. Global warming and its cause, the emissions of Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gases is a global problem that is caused, and therefore can only be solved, by local action.

Hermann Oelsner has Dubos' motto firmly embedded in his project for Darling. The 13MW windfarm is only a part of the 'Sustainable Environment and Employment Scheme', or Darling SEES. As well as the employment opportunities the construction of the wind farm will bring, he plans to boost the local economy further by building a visitors centre, showcasing the benefits of sustainable development and ecologically sound living, on land adjacent to the wind farm. A permanent exhibition will explain the practicalities of alternatives to South Africa's current Carbon based energy supply to visitors. A variety of educational facilities including a library and lecture theatre is planned, as well as accommodation facilities for conferences or visiting students. The buildings are to be an example of low energy construction, using thatched roofing, which provide excellent insulation, walls and flooring made from compressed earth, and a ventilation system powered by the natural provided by the sun. Materials are to be sourced locally wherever possible.

Facilities continue outside the buildings with a reed bed drainage system, which purifies waste water from basins and toilets before being discharged into the river. Examples of renewable energy technologies include a 250KW wind turbine which provides the electricity for the centre. This turbine is 5 times smaller than the ones on the main farm, situated high up on the hill. Water conservations methodology, examples of organic agriculture and restored wetland habitat will be on display. The visitors centre is based on the principle of 'thinking big', there is something for every visitor.

The visitors centre is only the beginning of what is planned in Darling SEES. The West Coast is a region of South Africa blessed with consistently high wind speeds, and open space ripe for the development of further wind projects. The deep sea port and steel works at Saldanha would be a prime location for the importation and manufacture of wind turbine components. An eco-industrial park is being planned as a place to provide local employment in industries that will benefit, not destroy our environment.

Projects such as this illustrate the huge economic benefits building a wind farm can bring to all sorts of sectors of local economies. Treating wind farms as tourist attractions and building up an economy around them has been done time and time again in Europe and elsewhere, with great success.

Discussions towards the end of 1999 let to an agreement that DANCED, the UNDP and Global Environmental Fund would jointly provide assistance to further the development of an on-grid wind energy programme in South Africa. Almost 5 years later, it is hoped that the lessons learned at Darling can pave the way for the expansion of many more wind farms in the near future to make this goal a reality.

Published in African Development Bank (ADP FINESSE Africa newsletter, August 2004)

By Katie Davidson