Students get to see sustainability, urban renewal at work in Joburg

On arrival at Northern WorksPart of the tour group pose for a photo on arrival at the Northern Works waste water treatment plant. (Photo: Rudo Mungoshi)

A group of local and international students and academics took a recent tour of some of the City of Joburg's leading green energy projects - then visited a revitalised inner city precinct that's been getting rave reviews in global travel magazines.

Site electrical engineer Sydney MukwinjaSite electrical engineer Sydney Mukwinja explains the process of extracting and converting biogas into electricity. (Photo: Rudo Mungoshi).The group comprised postgraduate students, researchers and lecturers from North West University and Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, who were visiting Johannesburg to see first-hand how the City is recycling waste to create sustainable sources of energy.

The day-long tour took place on Thursday, 18 August and was hosted by the City of Joburg's Department of Environment and Infrastructure Services and the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA).

It started off at Northern Works, one of Joburg's biggest waste water treatment plants, where the City has implemented its first biogas-to-energy project in a bid to cut back on its R100-million-a-year electricity bill.

Waste not, want not at City's gas-to-energy plants

Robinson Deep landfill siteThe second stop of the day was at the 124-acre Robinson Deep landfill site. (Photo: Rudo Mungoshi).The plant, located to the north of the city, is operated and maintained by WEC Projects. WES electrical engineer Sydney Mukwinja, who guided the group on its tour of the plant, explained how biogas is extracted from waste water and converted into electricity by means of cogeneration.

This electricity then feeds back into the plant, thus reducing its reliance on national supplier Eskom for powering its treatment of approximately 430-million litres of sewage a day.

The tour then traversed the city to the southern suburb of Turffontein, where methane gas emitted by organic waste at the Robinson Deep landfill site is being converted into energy.

They were guided around the plant by site technician Alec Mukhare, who explained the process of extracting methane gas. This is done by pumping gas through pipes installed in 68 wells, and from there via a burner where the gas is combusted.

Site technician Alec MukhareSite technician Alec Mukhare guids the group on their tour of the Robinson Deep methane gas-to-energy plant. (Photo: Rudo Mungoshi)."The gas is oxidized during the burning process to produce water and carbon dioxide, in order to generate electricity," explained Mukhare.

The carbon dioxide that comes out of the plant's chimneys, he added, is approximately 20 times less harmful than the methane gas that would otherwise have been emitted into the atmosphere.

Once due compliance had been met, Mukhare said, the Robinson Deep plant would start operating at full capacity, with a lifespan of 15-20 years and an expected output of 5 megawatts (MW) of renewable electricity - enough to supply about 6 000 middle-income households.

Maboneng: poster boy for revitalisation of inner city Joburg

After lunch, the focus of the tour shifted from new ways of achieving environmental sustainability to equally innovative approaches to the challenge of urban decay.

The group travelled from Turffontein to the Maboneng precinct on the south-eastern side of downtown Johannesburg, where a remarkable story of inner city regeneration has been unfolding since 2009.

Nomaliso Xabana, senior marketing specialist at the JDANomaliso Xabana, senior marketing specialist at the JDA, chats to some of the students during their walkabout at Maboneng. (Photo: Rudo Mungoshi).Nomaliso Xabana, senior marketing specialist at the JDA, gave the students a brief introduction to Maboneng before accompanying them on a walk around the colourful urban neighbourhood.

Xabana told of how the precinct sprang from the vision of property developer Jonathan Liebmann, who bought and converted some derelict warehouses and disused factories, enticed some professionals and creatives into overcoming their inner city phobias, and set about creating one of Joburg's trendiest destinations.

The JDA was quick to get behind Liebmann, spending over R24-million on upgrading the urban environment around his first development, Arts on Main, with revamped sidewalks, improved street lighting, landscaping, and concrete bollards to deter pavement parking.

And there's been no looking back since. By 2013, Maboneng - "Place of Light" in Sesotho - had become Joburg's inner city poster boy through the creation of funky mixed-use spaces that have enabled small business, entrepreneurship, the arts, culture and fashion to thrive in one place.

BBC Travel (2013) described it as "one of South Africa's hippest urban enclaves and an incredible example of urban regeneration", while New York-based travel and tourism magazine Travel + Leisure voted it one of the world's coolest new tourist attractions to visit in 2015.

Showing that sustainability, social upliftment can go together

The students explore Constitution HillThe students explore Constitution Hill. (Photo: Rudo Mungoshi).The final stopover of the day was at Constitution Hill, a milestone development for the JDA and for the City of Joburg in its drive to revitalise the inner city.

Here, the students got the opportunity to absorb some of the history of apartheid as reflected through some of Johannesburg's most notorious historic prisons, all of them now museums situated alongside the Constitutional Court, a symbol of South Africa's triumphant democracy.

Speaking afterwards, Anél du Plessis, professor of law at North West University and a leading authority on local government and environmental law, said she was impressed by the City's efforts to reduce its energy consumption in forward-thinking ways.

"Sustainability is one of the issues that is at the forefront of our generation, and I think we should all take it seriously," Du Plessis said.

Paola Villavicenio, a postdoctoral research student at North West University, said she had found the tour enlightening.

"The majority of the time we just spent our time working on desks and we don't get to see the reality," Villavicencio said. "It gives us a good idea on what Johannesburg is doing regarding sustainable issues."

She added that emerging countries needed to focus strongly on improving the quality of people's lives. "And these kinds of projects show that you can improve the lives of people and at the same time protect the environment."