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Counting the environmental costs of shale gas and solar power development
Author: Corporate Communication / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie
Published: 18/05/2017

Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane recently gave the green light for shale gas exploration in the Karoo region saying it will boost the economy of the Northern Cape. And while shale gas development is still to commence, questions have already been raised about the possible environmental impact.

Certain groups are particularly worried about the cumulative impact of future shale gas explorations and solar power development in the arid regions of the country, of which the Karoo makes up a large part/area.

"These areas are largely under-developed when it comes to the country's energy system and are also targets for both future solar power and shale gas plans. From an ecological perspective, this poses the question of which new impacts could be expected and how these impacts can be managed and mitigated," says Justine Rudman who recently obtained her Master's degree in Conservation Ecology at Stellenbosch University (SU). Rudman currently works as a research assistant for a Sustainable Systems research group in her hometown of Steytlerville in the Eastern Cape. This research group is housed in SU's Department of Industrial Engineering.

As part of her Master's research, Rudman tried to identify the direct environmental impacts of emerging solar power and shale gas developments in arid regions. She also wanted to explore how these impacts could change in the future when development increases.

Apart from interviewing certain expert groups with suitable experience and knowledge, Rudman analysed spatial data. She also visited solar power plants to gain an on-the-ground perspective on the impacts and management thereof at the facilities.

Rudman says her study has shown that shale gas explorations are expected to have an impact on the quality and quantity of water resources.Justine_bwprofile.jpg

"The risk associated with the impact on water resources is accentuated by several unknowns such as the source of water for hydraulic fracturing, already stressed water resources in the arid Karoo environment, and limited information on deep groundwater resources."

"These impacts are expected to increase significantly in severity and geographical distribution during the production stage after wellfields have been established."

"Other environmental impacts such as that on air quality and waste creation are expected to increase irrespective of the specific location of areas selected for development."

Rudman adds that shale gas explorations also require additional infrastructure such as pipelines, roads, and waste treatment facilities, which could lead to further impacts that are difficult to plan for without knowing what the receiving environment's baseline conditions are.

She points out that seven major river catchment areas fall within the shale gas exploration area. The Nama-Karoo, an area for which biodiversity data is scarce, is the most affected by shale gas developments and makes up approximately 68% of such explorations.

"Regarding the impact of solar power developments, my research showed that a major concern is the impact on birds in the area and habitat transformation," says Rudman.

"It was also found that the severity of impacts associated with solar power is the highest during the construction stage which represents approximately 10% of a power plant's lifetime."

She adds that although the impact on birdlife is a major concern, monitoring data must first be collected to determine the real impact.

According to Rudman, the footprint of current solar power developments is relatively low and even at 100% allocation of the capacity indicated in the latest 2030 plan, the combined transformed footprint remains less than 2% within the study area.

"This finding highlights the importance of proper siting of projects and the thorough implementation of environmental management plans to contain impacts to this rather small footprint."

Rudman says that while the current Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process at individual solar power plants seems to be sufficient, there is a concern for the implementation of the process by competent companies as well as a weakness in planning for cumulative impacts potentially arising from multiple projects.

"Current policy and planning are particularly weak to account for such widespread impacts arising from multiple solar power plant or shale gas well sites."

Rudman adds that the findings of her study would be valuable to the current EIA and Management processes.

  • Main Photo: Pixabay
  • Photo 1: Justine Rudman


Justine Rudman

Sustainable Systems research group

Department of Industrial Engineering

Stellenbosch University

Cell: 072 822 4304