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As prevalent debates concerning the implementation of carbon-neutral sources continue to make headlines, also increasingly rife, is the energy industry’s endeavour to explore a broader array of renewable energy sources including biomass. 

Great strides have been made in Africa’s development in biomass. Interestingly, Africa has the highest portion of bioenergy, at 45% of the total energy mix, thereby validating the continent’s potential to capitalise on this renewable energy source. 

Furthermore, there are currently industrial-scale biomass and waste-to-energy plants being explored in Angola, Tanzania, Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Nigeria and Ethiopia.

Within a global context, using GE’s renewable steam technology, the Kamisu Biomass Power Generation plant in Japan will run on 100% biomass to generate 50MW of reliable energy. According to GE, this is one example of how the company is adapting its technologies to meet market demand to support more renewable fuel sources like biomass.

Lee Dawes, GE Steam Power sub-Saharan Africa CEO, says the South African context will be different. While biomass and waste-to-energy are considered in the latest IRP, there has been no clear determination on how it will be implemented. 

“A consideration to reduce CO2 emission could be a coal to biomass conversion. Depending on the size of a plant, typically, existing power plants can be adapted to utilise a wide range of biomass fuels up to 20% to supplement or displace coal providing additional benefit to reduce CO2, NOx and Sox,” states Dawes. 

Decarbonising with steam power technology

Notwithstanding, in accordance with the Paris Agreement and mounting concerns for the adverse effects of climate change, South African policies are striving to accelerate decarbonisation while meeting the need for the rapidly growing demand for reliable, affordable and environmentally sustainable power. 

Dawes also argues that while biomass is considered a renewable energy source, its sustainability will depend on continuous growth and the cultivation of the biomass sources to ensure a carbon-neutral state. “Where the biomass is a secondary revenue stream, it often contributes to the commercial viability of such projects”.

With all these developments in energy, it remains imperative to note that, despite the energy source employed, maintaining a sustainable balance between developmental as well as environmental national needs while managing current challenges to ensure energy security, economic stability and jobs, remains high on government’s agenda. 

Policymakers will have to devise and implement strategies to ensure a successful transition, taking into consideration the various implications of such a shift, such as the interdependencies of fuel sources along with the impact of renewable penetration on the grid.

“At GE we respect the choices that countries make regarding their energy mix and fuel sources. Once countries have chosen the fuel that best meets their energy, cost and sustainability needs, we support them with the most efficient technology that has the least possible environmental impact,” explains Dawes. 

He adds: “In countries like South Africa where coal provides self-sufficient and affordable means of energy security, it is essential that the plants provide high levels of efficiency and rely on leading air quality control technologies. Therefore, access to finance, upgrade, maintain and in some cases extend the life of existing assets in a sustainable manner is essential.”

GE has made significant progress in assisting governments and utilities to improve the availability and reliability of their plants with the leverage of private finance. This has been implemented by capitalising on the opportunities presented by new digital solutions. 

“Across the world digital technologies are transforming the energy industry by increasing levels of productivity, lowering operational costs and extending the life of machinery. It’s time for South Africa to join this Fourth Industrial Revolution.” The rolling power blackouts, which carry a significant economic burden to the country, have rendered it imperative to focus intensively on plant availability and reliability.

Combining the best technology with technical skills

It is critical to also note that responsible investment in energy does not only concern infrastructure and technology, it similarly concerns people and policy choices. GE believes it has a role to play in this by investing in the right technologies, developing the right technical skills needed to help the industries grow and support the development of local suppliers.

Dawes notes that, in partnership with Eskom, GE has invested considerably in skills training having trained a significant amount of skilled and unskilled youths, comprising artisans, welders, engineers, fitters and boilermakers. In addition, they support local businesses through a preferential procurement process.

“We understand the importance of ensuring that the future generation of engineers, technicians and scientists have access to the training and support that they need to develop and contribute to the development of the country,” said Dawes. 

“We recognise that technology and skills development are key drivers to ensure long-term development of any sector, economy or country and with our digital tools we are ready to take the next step,” he concluded.

About GE Steam Power

GE Steam Power is helping customers achieve their cleaner power generation objectives with a broad portfolio of technologies that can be applied to new-built plants and the installed base across a range of fuel sources including nuclear, coal, oil, biomass, solar and municipal waste. As today’s #1 steam power franchise with more than 30% of the world’s steam turbine installed capacity, 50% of the world’s steam turbines operating in nuclear power plants and 30% of the world’s boilers, GE Steam Power technology is delivering solutions that optimize the reliability, affordability, flexibility and environmental impact of steam power plants all over the world.