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Cape Town E-Prix drives home lessons on renewables

The Formula E reveal of a new electric car race on the African continent is symbolic of another race, writes LANCE DICKERSON, MD of Revov

Formula E’s track reveals for the inaugural Cape Town E-Prix is symbolic of another race taking place in South Africa. The 2022/23 Formula E season will be blessed with the energy of the Mother City and sweeping views for fans from all over the world.

The other race preoccupying progressive elements in the country is the push towards renewable energy in the face of strong resistance from an establishment entrenched in coal. While our president has positive commitments, this race has yet to hit the home straight. Some would argue we’re still in the warm-up lap. To be fair, Cape Town has made headlines a few times in its forward-looking drive to prioritise renewable energy and lessen its dependence on Eskom’s national grid.

Why does the Cape Town E-Prix matter? The sight of marvels of engineering hurtling through the streets of Cape Town, powered only by batteries and electric motors, will inspire a generation of activists who know that innovation and excitement need not reside in the old paradigm which is choking the environment.

It matters most because everyone reading this woke up to load shedding again in the second week of March, a stark reminder that our energy grid is one or two coal-generator breakdowns away from reneging on its duty to supply our economy with the energy it needs to survive and grow. When the power generation units break down, Eskom starts load shedding to replenish the emergency generation reserves.

These reserves, for those who may not know, run on open gas turbines which are powered by burning diesel. In other words, fossil fuel backs up a grid dominated by fossil fuel. There are dozens of estimates from consultancies and national bodies around the world about the amount of diesel it takes to produce power. One need not get caught up in specifics and the generation type to appreciate that it takes huge amounts of diesel to power South Africa’s emergency open gas turbines.

Now, over and above the obvious environmental concerns of burning fossil fuels, South Africans were shocked recently with an estimate that the petrol and diesel price could surge to R40 a litre in the short term. Of course, these estimates have been rubbished by some economists who say it’s not based on reality, and they console us, saying that price increases would be less severe. Any increase is bad news.

We should all be concerned that the national utility is relying on diesel, the cost of which is at the mercy of the war in Ukraine and other geopolitical factors, and that any increase in input costs is either going to be forced onto us or add even more pressure to Eskom’s viability which is already one of the country’s biggest risks. Naturally, this use of diesel assumes that load shedding won’t end anytime soon. It won’t.

Eskom’s CFO Calib Cassim confirmed as much during a briefing to the media on 8 March. He said that the war in Ukraine was putting upward pressure on the price of oil and gas. “The timing could not be worse,” he said. “We can’t give the exact number, but if the oil price doubles, it impacts the energy we can produce from diesel going forward… We don’t have a cheque book to continually spend on diesel.”

Eskom is not the only entity that will feel the pinch from diesel. Every business and household in this country that hasn’t invested in batteries or solar will feel the pain of running a generator during extended bouts of load shedding. One can understand why generators became so popular – they cost less than a good UPS system or solar installation but over time the renewable alternative will pay for itself and cost less than a generator over its lifespan – especially when one factors in rising fuel prices and services.

As Cassim so succinctly described, the running costs over time are simply going to become unsustainable. Beyond the costs, running generators aren’t ideal because of the noise and environmental pollution. A big event celebrating clean energy will do wonders to spreading this message more broadly.

Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis spoke highly of the jobs that will be created by the event, the infrastructure improvements and the knock-on effect for businesses in the region. However, that’s only one side of the story.

The other is that everyone with a vested interest in the renewable energy sector will likely descend on the city and use the event to promote the idea that energy does not need to come from fossil fuels. The city itself is likely to double down on its own publicity drive around investment in renewable energy. The cynics among us would see this as opportunistic. The realists among us will see this as long overdue. We must live in a world that pushes the idea of renewable energy and carbon-friendly technologies to businesses and individuals alike. It is the future and we are lagging behind in South Africa.

However, possibly a lesser-known but arguably the most exciting side conversation related to the E-Prix, at least from Revov’s perspective, is the discussion about electric vehicle (EV) batteries. Energy storage solutions that rely on the EV battery market are set to soar in popularity driven in part by their performance, but also by likely price increases in the new lithium storage battery market because of lithium shortages.

Here’s the context: Lithium iron phosphate batteries are superior to lead-acid batteries in every metric, from safety to performance. Batteries are used in UPS systems for power backup, or in renewable energy installations to provide off-grid or hybrid power solutions. Ordinarily, the lithium supply chain pressures – driven by the surge in EVs – would spell bad news in terms of affordability

However, second life (2nd LiFe) batteries, which are repurposed from the cells in replaced EV batteries, have stepped up to fill the void. Every EV’s battery needs to be replaced when the weight no longer justifies the performance. Ordinarily, these batteries would end up in landfills. However, the individual cells, when repurposed correctly and when built into batteries with intelligent management systems, still have enough life and performance in them to provide stationary storage for as long first life batteries, with the added benefit of performance specifications unique to the EV sector, such as the capacity to perform in harsh conditions. This is how Revov has built its business. By securing these premium cells and by building premium 2nd LiFe batteries, we’ve provided a compelling solution to close the circular economy in sub-Saharan Africa.

And so, as we watch the racing cars – engineering marvels in their own right – race through the streets of Cape Town, we are witnessing the leading edge of the EV market. We see the catwalk models of 2nd LiFe donor cells. The E-Prix in Cape Town symbolises our country’s race to convert our dependence on fossil fuels to a dependence on technology that has already paid its carbon price in the EV market, providing a compelling alternative to provide storage for SA’s booming renewable energy sector.

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