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Turning stink into power for South Africa's poor

by Fidelis Zvomuya | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 14 April 2010 13:05 GMT

By Fidelis Zvomuya

DURBAN, South Africa (AlertNet) Â? Trash is changing life Â? for the better Â? for the impoverished informal settlers living in Dakota Beach, an informal settlement on the outskirts of South Africa's third largest municipality.

Thanks to a pioneering landfill gas-to-electricity program, residents in the polluted area are getting electricity for the first time, and more than a hundred new jobs as well.

"This project came in as a lifeline for us informal settlers. We at last have access to electricity. No more using firewood or coal for cooking. This is going to cut unemployment as some of us now have permanent jobs," said Wendy Khumalo, a pregnant mother of three who landed one of the 109 jobs at the Bisasar Road methane project.


Altogether, 9,000 local households - including 3,750 informal settlers - are now receiving clean electricity as a result of the $13.7 million methane capture effort funded by South Africa's eThekwini (Durban) Municipality, the South African government and an $8 million loan from the French Development Bank.

The six-year project, Africa's first landfill gas-to-electricity effort, creates about $600,000 a month in income for the municipality both through electricity sales and through the sale of carbon credits through the Clean Development Mechanism.

That mechanism, under the close-to-expiring Kyoto Protocol, allows industrialised countries to invest in clean development projects in developing countries as a means of offsetting their own carbon emissions.

The methane capture project provides an insight into how fast-growing African cities may be able to find the power they need without large hikes in their own carbon emissions.

South Africa in recent years has suffered from growing electricity shortages that have sent bills skyrocketing and led to worsening power outages.

While the methane-to-electricity project is unlikely to produce any drop in electric bills, it has brought jobs, greater access to power by those who never had it and a drop in the area's carbon emissions. Methane, normally released from landfills or flared away, is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

"Having electricity in my home was just a pipe dream and I had lost hope long ago. Now I will have a front seat during the (FIFA Soccer) World Cup in June and July as I will be watching matches on my TV set," Khumalo said.

Her area has long been heavily polluted, in part as a result of coal, paraffin and firewood used for cooking. Garbage has normally been thrown on street corners and infrequently collected, making the area smelly and filthy.

"But after the launch of this project we have seen changes. The smoke from the burning of fuel wood is now very low. The collection of garbage is now frequent due to the demand from the landfill," Khumalo said.

The project involves collecting methane from decomposing rubbish and burning it to produce electricity, said Debra Roberts, the city's chief of environmental management.

Roberts said the burning gas produces about 7.5 megawatts of electricity a month.

"Landfill gas electricity plants produce less carbon dioxide than conventional coal-fired power stations and the gas extraction and destruction further reduces greenhouse gas emissions, as well as improving air quality in the surrounding community," she said.

The power produced is pumped back into the city's electrical grid, she said. That has enabled the municipality to cut its power purchases from Eskom, the national power utility, by about 0.4 percent, said Obert Mlaba, eThekwini mayor.


The project is the first landfill gas-to-energy project on the African continent, according to Dipuo Peters, South Africa's energy minister.

The project is expected to result in a reduction of 12,000 tons of carbon emissions a year by 2012.

"This is highly significant for South Africa which is said to be among the biggest carbon dioxide emitters in the world even though we are a developing country," Peters said.

"South Africa has some 57 municipal-owned landfill sites with the potential to generate more than 1,200 megawatts of electricity per year," the minister said.

Climate change poses a significant threat to the eThekwini (Durban) municipality, which is located on the country's Indian Ocean coast and is considered vulnerable to sea level rise, which could endanger municipal infrastructure and services.

Fidelis Zvomuya, based in Pretoria, South Africa, is a writer specializing in environmental reporting.

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