Powering communities is possible but not happening because of NERSA

The South African Pork Producers’ Organisation (SAPPO) has called on the National Energy Regulator (NERSA) to review its position regarding the purchasing of power from independent producers.

The organisation says many of its members are busy with or planning to install biogas facilities on their farms with a view to reducing their own electricity consumption or selling electricity back to the national grid. The production of biogas – which is done in many other countries such as USA and Australia – can also be used for renewable energy credits and can also help offset the cost of the operation.

However, local pig farmers say this process is expensive and that the low tariffs offered by NERSA for the electricity produced is far below market value to make it worthwhile for them, even for them to manufacture for their own use.

“There is a huge potential to generate power from biogas which will alleviate the strain on the national grid. Just in the pork industry, as much as 150 – 200MW can be supplied during peak periods which will make a massive contribution to the strained output,” says James Jenkinson, Chairman of SAPPO, who started a biogas turbine on his farm Swineline situated in the Cullinan District.

Jenkinson says the main reasons for wanting to start such a facility on his farm were that he would be dealing with the pig effluent in an efficient way and because he thought, at the time, that it would be financially viable for his farm.

He says he was also interested in doing such a project as it provided clean power which, unlike many other renewable energy solutions, can be stored for future use. Jenkinson says this makes the use of biogas even more attractive as the turbines are only run when power is required during peak hours; the turbine can be ‘online’ within only four minutes of receiving a start signal.

“But the added advantage of producing electricity and then selling back to the grid did not materialise mainly because the tariff NERSA offered was far lower what it cost to produce the biogas or even what we were paying for own electricity on the farm,” says Jenkinson.

Despite these obstacles Jenkinson says there are other biogas facilities, such as at the Riverside Piggery outside Pretoria, which are viable, to an extent.

“At this facility they are creating power for their own use which includes hot exhaust gas that creates hot steam which is used to make hot water for use in the abattoir. Pig manure is an excellent source of methane needed for the production of biogas so having this project there is a good idea. They have two turbines and have the potential to create more power than they need but they won’t do it because NERSA simply won’t buy that power at a reasonable rate,” he says.

The production of biogas for electricity use is an excellent example of how the pig industry is innovating and utilising all resources to be more competitive and environmentally friendly.

“But farmers won’t be spending on this technology if there aren’t added benefits to them and the broader community. Clearly South Africa needs more electricity – even in the long-term – and this is a perfect way for everyone to win. But why would farmers do this if NERSA doesn’t assist them with the right price? Clearly this must change,” he says.

In the meantime, Jenkinson says he will continue with his biogas facility even though it is not financially viable. He says the benefits of dealing with the pig effluent on his farm, and the knowledge he is gaining from this process, are what keep him going.

“It’s not about making money for me. I want to use what I have on my farm and deal with it efficiently and, yes, it’s costing me money. If there was a way to recover that and provide electricity to the community that would be great but NERSA is not making that possible as yet. I hope it changes in future,” he concludes.