South Africa is experiencing a mammoth energy crisis with its debt-laden national power utility, Eskom, being unable to meet the electricity needs of the nation. After extensive periods of load shedding in 2018 and again earlier this year, it is becoming increasingly important to find an alternative source of energy. According to Marko Nokkala, senior sales manager at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, South Africa is in the perfect position to utilize biomass as an alternative source of energy.
Things to Consider
Should South Africa choose to delve deeper into biomass energy production, there are a few things that need to be considered. At present, a lot of biomass (such as fruit and vegetables) is utilized as food. It will, therefore, be necessary to identify alternative biomass sources that are not typically used as food, so that a food shortage is never created in the process.
One alternative would be to use municipal solid waste from landfills and dumpsites as well as the wood waste from the very large and lucrative forestry industry in the country. It is also essential to keep in mind that an enormous amount of biomass will be needed to replace even a portion of the 90 million tons of coal that Eskom utilizes every year at its various power stations.
Potential Biomass Conversion Routes
There are a number of processing technologies that South Africans can utilize to turn their biomass into a sustainable energy source. Biochemical conversion involving technology such as anaerobic digestion and fermentation makes use of enzymes, microorganisms, and bacteria to breakdown the biomass into a variety of liquid or vaporous fuels.
Fermentation is especially suitable when the biomass waste boasts a high sugar or water content, as is the case with a variety of agricultural wastes. By placing some focus on microbial fermentation process development, a system can effectively be created that will allow for large-scale biofuel production. Other technologies to consider include thermal methods like co-firing, pyrolysis, and gasification.
Future of biomass energy in South Africa
Despite the various obstacles that may slow down the introduction of large-scale biomass energy production in the country, it still promises to be a viable solution to the pressing energy concern. Biomass energy production does not require any of the major infrastructures that Eskom is currently relying on.
Although the initial setup will require a substantial amount of electricity, running a biomass conversion plant will cost significantly less than a coal-powered power plant in the long run. With the unemployment rate hovering around 27.1% in South Africa at present, any jobs created through the implementation of biomass energy conversion will be of great benefit to the nation.
Without speedy intervention, South Africa may very soon be left in the dark. Although there are already a number of wind farms in operation in the country, the addition of biomass conversion facilities will undoubtedly be of great benefit to Africa’s southernmost country.