History marches past the Zumacrats

“Communism”, said Lenin, “equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”. For communism, substitute the creation of a new class of black industrialists. Swap ANC for Soviet. The result is President Jacob Zuma’s justification for wanting to commission a massive new fleet of nuclear power stations from, in what would be a delicious irony if true, Lenin’s latest successor.

Which begs the question: is the means suited to the end? Or will the Zumacrats land up on the wrong side of history, lashing the South African economy to an obsolete model and leaving the new class, benighted, with an albatross? Will they learn nothing from the success of their own renewable energy procurement programme?

There’s a revolution under way. Its equation might be liberation equals solar power plus batteries to store it by the megawatt for when the fusion reactor in the sky is occluded. In the vanguard — another lovely twist — are South Africans. Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX fame. His cousin, SolarCity’s Lyndon Rive. And, less well known, Mike Thackeray, a Comrades Marathon standout credited with a critical breakthrough in lithium-ion technology and now working at the US government’s Argonne laboratories outside Chicago.

Is the revolution real? Ask the Edison Electricity Institute, the think tank of American utilities. Two years ago it issued a report warning that on current trends traditional Big Electricity could find itself in a “death spiral” with ever more customers leaving to grid. “This is the dawn of the solar age,” write Dickon Pinner and Matt Rogers of McKinsey’s Global Cleantech Practice in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

Sun power is becoming economical without subsidies, they report. Photovoltaic (PV) panels are cheaper and cheaper to make, their cost falling 80 per cent since 2005. They are also getting more efficient, now able to generate two watts of power for every 10 that hit him. This will likely keep improving. “Given these trends, it is not a stretch to assume that in many markets, the costs of solar power will continue to decline by 8 to 12 per cent a year.”

It’s true that a number of suppliers folded after China entered the game around 2005, but the competition turned out to be a blessing. It led to “improved production processes and new economies of scale”, say the McKinsey men. Meanwhile, in the US, greater affordability has encouraged more consumers to start generating their own power with panels supplied and creatively financed by companies like SolarCity. In the first half of 2014, a quarter of new generating capacity in the US came came from solar, much of it from the roofs of homeowners.

Musk and Rive are betting big that a tipping point has been reached. Unfazed by Chinese competition SolarCity has announced plans for a massive PV factory in upstate New York. Tesla is building a $5 billion factory in the Nevada desert to make lithium-ion batteries on an epic scale. The target is 50 gigawatts worth a year by 2017, enough to power all of South Africa with plenty to spare. The batteries won’t simply be for Musk’s electric cars. They’ll include stationary units for home and commercial use and will ship with SolarCity’s panels.

No less exciting are the plans of another company, Alevo, which last October announced it was investing $1 billion to build containerised 2 megawatt battery banks — Gridbanks, it calls them — in North Carolina. Alevo has developed a propietary electrolyte which its says extends the life of its batteries to 40 000 charge and discharge cycles without loss of voltage. It true, that would be a significant breakthrough. Eskom might want to take note if it hasn’t already. Gridbanks, and Alevo’s cutting edge algorithms, increase the efficiency of existing utilities by storing power that would otherwise go to waste and reinjecting it the grid when needed.

Every revolution has its reactionaries. In the US, these include the billionaire Koch brothers who have been bankrolling the Tea Party wing and the climate changer deniers of the Republican Party. The Kochs are heavily invested in oil and gas. They are fighting initiatives in Florida and elsewhere that would make it easier for citizens to go off-grid and sell any surplus electricity they might generate with their own rigs. This has put the brothers at glorious odds with Tea Party-ers who see state-sanctioned power monopolies as an affront their freedom.

Will the Zumacrats be Koch-like reactionaries to save their nuclear ambitions from the march of history?

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