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Silver Linings for Cookhouse

Silver Linings for Cookhouse

Next time you drive the N10 to Port Elizabeth, look up to the Patryshoogte, where a line of spinning wind turbines is bringing hope to a community in Cookhouse…

Words: Julienne du Toit

Pictures: Chris Marais www.karoospace.co.za

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In one of the dusty streets of a tiny Eastern Cape settlement called Cookhouse, Buncwane Budaza puts her hands on the shoulders of her partner, Azoma Thonga and arches her left foot confidently. “Now dance,” says their teacher Zoleka Nywebeni of Msobomvu Preschool.

Together they take the first steps in unison, Azoma leading and Buncwane following. One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three. Nearby is their freshly painted and renovated pre-school. Down the road is the Lunch Bar Spaza Shop. Behind them is a giant light mast, so peculiar to South African townships.

And in the far distance is the source of their hope: an array of spinning white wind turbines, doing their very own Skyline Waltz up on Patryshoogte ridge. It is these wind turbines that have brought silver linings to Cookhouse, Somerset East, Bedford and Adelaide.

The first notion that an energy revolution was afoot in the Eastern Cape came during 2013 when the Olifantskop Pass between Port Elizabeth and the Karoo was closed for a few hours a day as abnormal-load trucks rumbled up and over its sharp curves. Some bore parts of towers. But most carried a single gigantic blade apiece, 44 metres long, shaped like a bird feather, weighing seven tons.

The trucks were all headed to Patryshoogte, a high ridge overlooking the N10 and Cookhouse. Motorists passing could see the development happening in slow motion. First the specialised crane would arrive, looking like a slouching skeletal angel. Then a tower would slowly rise, 80 metres high. After that, the giant blades were attached.

For months, 66 brand new white turbines stood motionless on the hill. Then, one by one the white, three-bladed beasts started to turn, fascinating and hypnotic in their improbable spiky grace. Cookhouse Wind Farm fed kilowatt hours into the grid through most of 2014, with full commercial operation officially starting in November of that year.

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The Cookhouse Community Trust owns a 25 per cent share in the 138.6MW wind farm and, in addition, another one per cent is invested into Socio Economic Development projects in and around four towns within a 50km radius.

Wind power has already started making a substantial and positive difference in the daily lives of people living in Cookhouse, Somerset East, Bedford and Adelaide.

Msobomvu Preschool in Cookhouse was based in an old home that was falling apart. Principal Fezeka Mselana faced a daily Mission Impossible. The Department of Social Development funded the school with R13 000 a month during school terms and only R6 000 during holidays.

With this meagre budget, plus a monthly R50 per child from most parents, Fezeka had to pay the salaries of three dedicated teachers, two support staff, her own salary, plus electricity, rent and food for 98 children. There was certainly no budget to fix anything up and no money for toys or books, so the Cookhouse Wind Farm funding has been a godsend, says Fezeka.

Apart from extensive renovations to the building, the pre-school now has a new stove, a fridge, carpets for the children to play on, toys and furniture. The children play on colourful jungle gyms outside, and inside they draw, cut out shapes, listen to stories, learn to tell their own, carefully write their own names, and dance the waltz to the strains of teacher Zoleka’s favourite gospel music.

Now, with Wind Farm renovations, Msobomvu can expand and from next year they plan to enrol babies aged from between six months and a year. “I like these children so much,” sighs Fezeka contentedly, watching the ‘seniors’ going through their dance moves – the younger ones copying them from a distance.

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Meanwhile, a few blocks away, an entirely different age group has been nattering about the Cookhouse Wind Farm. Elukhanyisweni Organisation for the Older Persons offers a haven for retirees. Here a few dozen men and women over the age of 60 gather on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays for companionship, meals and the learning of new skills.

Thobile Sidney Ngxoni, blind after decades working as a welder, settles into his chair with a grunt and wraps his hands around a cup of hot coffee, surrounded by his friends who all sit like skinny sparrows on the stoep.“At home, I just sit, waiting to die. Here I have friends. I look forward to my days with them.” Next to him, John Biko adds, “It’s good to talk nonsense to each other, to be together, to skoffel in the garden and plant vegetables.”

Church 14 years ago and has been erratically funded by the Department of Social Development. Key to Elukhanyisweni’s work is a serious young woman called Unathi Peter, who goes to visit the centre’s bedridden members around the township, treating and checking up on those who have had strokes and operations or are otherwise immobile. Her commitment is clear, yet she earns only a few hundred rand a month for her dedicated care.

In 2014, money from the Cookhouse Wind Farm bought the centre a sickbed, cupboards, a computer, filing cabinets and sport equipment. The retirees here point proudly at photographs of their netball team winning the most recent Eastern Cape Golden Games sport meet. Wind Farm money provided them with uniforms and equipment.

One of the centre’s founders, Patricia Leeuskieter, who is almost always crocheting a shawl or a blanket, says, “We begin the day with prayer and a Bible reading. It is peaceful here, far from loud music and conflict. We carry each other’s problems and support one another. We are so pleased and grateful for the Wind Farm that helps us look after our old people and our children. And it offers our young people work.”

There are a dozen other similar projects spread over the four towns within the Cookhouse Wind Farm’s 50km radius. They are administered and watched over by Stakeholder Relations Officer Adelicia Horne, who works out of an office in Cookhouse.

The Cookhouse Wind Farm Community Trust, made up of four local beneficiary trustees and four independent trustees, has decided to dedicate the estimated R20 million it will receive over three years to a massive project they have dubbed the Education Flagship Initiative. This targets 20 primary schools, eight high schools and seven farm schools in the district and aims to strengthen academic support in the four towns, with particular focus on teachers support, maths, science and literacy. It is a legacy project that has the potential to help turn this economically depressed region around.

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Meanwhile, up on the Patryshoogte ridge, the wind is blowing at a steady eight metres a second, and all the blades are spinning, each turbine capable of pumping out 2.1MW. Among the towers graze sheep and cows belonging to the farmers who own the land. The whoosh-whoosh-whoosh sounds don’t seem to faze livestock or the more skittish kudus and warthogs. On hot days, the sheep line up to sleep in the shade of the tower.

19. cookhouseThe owner’s site manager, Stephan Putter says the airflow over Patryshoogte was obviously crucial in positioning the wind farm, but another deciding factor was the nearby Poseidon substation. “A win-win situation,” says Stephan, who spent years in Australia, also on wind farms. During construction phase, he worked with Suzlon, the Indian firm that supplied the wind turbines. He was responsible for construction, and now operation and maintenance, and is loving being back in the country, atop a ridge with such wide and splendid views.

Cookhouse Wind Farm, like most renewable energy companies starting up operations in South Africa, has a flavour of international collaboration. But the benefits for locals are clear. Community trusts and social economic development aside, employment, rentals and trade volumes have risen in surrounding towns as technicians work on the construction of two more wind farms, (Amakhala and Nojoli).

In the wings are two in the final financial-close stages and another three still on the drawing board. Each one is under contract to supply energy for twenty years. And that is how long the benefits to the local communities are guaranteed – depending on how fast or slow the turbine blades spin.

Birds, Bats and Plants

  • Wind farms can be detrimental to birds and bats because of collisions, destruction of habitat or displacement.
  • Yet BirdLife South Africa and the Endangered Wildlife Trust are broadly supportive of renewable energy, in large part because burning fossil fuels for energy is driving climate change which could have a far greater negative effect than individual wind farms, provided they have been sited correctly.
  • The two organisations work closely together to help ensure that renewable energy is developed with as little damage to the environment as possible, collaborating with the Department of Environmental Affairs and the South African Wind Energy Association. They have mapped sensitive bird areas and set up best practice guidelines.
  • They have also successfully lobbied government to ensure that the impacts of most operational wind farms are monitored; this provides an opportunity to identify and address any unanticipated negative impacts and to improve the sustainability of wind energy developments in the future.
  • Before wind turbines are erected, indigenous plants are rescued. Outside Bedford, on Albertvale Farm, Kim van Niekerk has trained six previously unskilled and unemployed people to remove and safeguard plants as well as propagate them.
  • The plants being rescued include species like pelargonium, haworthia, sutera, euphorbia, stapelia, aloe, bulbine, bergeranthus, massonia, liliaceae and amaryllidaceae.

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