Business Unusual
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How one city may change the way all cities are built

Abu Dhabi started a project in 2006 to build a development that would give the country an edge on the innovation and evolution of renewable energy - Masdar City.

Rather than see themselves as an oil rich country, they have opted to think of themselves as an energy rich country. As fossil fuel reserves decline and concerns about their use rise, they appear to be using oil money to kill the oil business while building the renewable energy industry.

You may be surprised to know that the International Renewable Energy Agency is based there.

It is not a utopia though, the build launch in 2008 came as the world financial crisis hit which saw oil prices fall drastically.

The ambitious project had to be scaled back and the completion date pushed out, but the principle and the vision of other projects like it are significant for South Africa and Africa to note.

An infrastructure project for South Africa and Africa

South Africans may not remember the days of cheap and abundant electricity but they will remember the inconvenience and cost to the economy of load shedding and huge electricity cost spikes.

SA produces almost half of all the electricity in Africa and we are also the biggest consumers of it on the continent. The opportunity to connect the 600 million Africans who currently still contend with limited access and high costs could be a great project for the continent and bring significant economic opportunities for all involved.

In order to connect everyone in SA sustainably we will need to relook at our energy mix which is still heavily reliant on coal.

There are two significant opportunities:

  • Improving our future use of energy to best benefit society, the economy and the environment
  • Use the improvements to connect and enhance the economies of fellow African countries

The option to explore nuclear is not without merit, but the potential for the deployment of renewable options closer to the areas still underserved and using the best options may make it is more suitable than the significant cost and build times of nuclear programme.

The projections for job creation are also greater with renewable operations. Besides the installation and maintenance options there are opportunities in manufacturing, research and export.

South Africa can’t expect to keep doing what it has done in the past in the way it has been doing it and hope it will be enough.

Energy is both a critical need and huge opportunity to foster growth for Africa. Investing in the technology and training the future captains of the industry will tick many of South Africa’s goals for economic transformation, growth, increased trade and human development.

The rapid adoption of mobile phones might not require much electricity, but it does require it and the benefits that flow from mobile connections are significant.

Hans Rosling made the point that one of the world’s best inventions is the washing machine for it’s ability to transform society for the better. To use washing machines, you need electricity.

It will require Eskom to continue to invest in renewable projects (even if more expensive at the moment), consider the actual benefits for new base load power stations that are coal or nuclear based, rather than gas or a mix of renewables.

Universities should look to create and promote courses that will allow us to add to the development of the sector and support will be needed to attract and create businesses to manufacture, install and maintain them.

South Africa’s Renewable Energy Council is playing a role in achieving this but more will be needed to ensure the role played by Eskom, the State, investors and renewable producers can capitalise on the current success and drive for the full benefits to be achieved.

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