IRP2019: municipalities can profit by generating electricity – from sewage

Business Insider SA
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  • South Africa's new Integrated Resource Plan, the IRP2019, says municipalities can benefit from generating electricity from their waste streams, including sewage.
  • Waste to power projects at a local level have "great potential for improving municipal revenues", the planning document says.
  • Cape Town is going to court for the right to buy power directly from independent producers, and Johannesburg's mayor is also threatening to go to court.
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider South Africa homepage.

South African municipalities could make money by turning their waste, including sewage, into electricity, South Africa's new long-range power plan says – even as the country's two biggest municipalities complain about regulations that tie their hands.

The new version of the Integrated Resource Plan, IRP2019, warns that municipalities face new threats from a changing electricity market, and load shedding. But it also holds out hope.

"Distributed generation through biomass, biogas and municipal waste are areas holding great potential for improving municipal revenues. All municipalities have sites for processing waste; they also have sewer outfall sites. Technologies are available for these resources to be added to the generation mix at sub-utility scale," the document says.

See also: Cape Town was able to avoid load shedding stage 2 on Wednesday – but says that won’t be possible forever

In 2016 a waste-water treatment plant in Denmark started generating electricity by harvesting biogas from sewage, making more than enough power to run its own operations. A similar project has been proposed outside Pretoria.

Biomass power is generated from agricultural residue, often wood – or from the kind of garden refuse that ends up at city dumps.

Other technologies, such as plasma gasification, promise to help turn general waste into electricity, diverting at least a portion of solid waste away from landfill.

Municipal-level generation would be in keeping with the broad spirit of the 2019 IRP, which calls for both environmental protection and diversification of energy sources.

See also: Cape Town will use aerial photos to spot unregistered solar panels in suburbs

It could also soften the impact of customers abandoning municipal grids. Load shedding helps to drive down the willingness-to-pay threshold, the IRP 2019 warns, the cost point beyond which customers either find ways to make their own electricity or just stop paying for municipal power.

But South African cities have been struggling to take control of their own electricity destinies as they seek to reduce the impact of load shedding on their residents. 

Cape Town expects the high court to hear its demand for the right to buy electricity directly from independent producers in the first half of next year.

This week Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba said his city too is "willing to proceed to the courts" after Eskom said it is not allowed to directly buy electricity so it can offset load shedding when the national grid is in danger of collapse due to a shortage of supply.

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