Updated: Jul 23, 2021
Over the last decade, South Africa’s “just transition” toward clean energy has put the Country’s economy at considerable risk by depriving it of energy security, industrial growth, and an effective transition from fossil fuels. South Africa has also not met its Paris Agreement goals on decarbonisation and, for consecutive years, has been recording an increase in carbon intensity. To meet these goals, South Africa needs to cut its CO₂ emissions by two thirds by 2050, which could deindustrialise our economy, if we continue getting this wrong. If Africa contributes less than 3% of global CO₂ emissions, then how did we get so drawn into these commitments, at the expense of our economy, when more appropriate and viable solutions are at hand?
Due to South Africa’s aging generation assets, we should anyway see a rapid decline in coal-fired power generation in our energy mix over the next decade, with probably only 10 gigawatts remaining by 2050. Cleaner coal could extend its contribution but, like most technologies working outside their “comfort zones”, coal power could eventually price itself out of the market.
Similarly, the high volumes of toxic waste being generated by renewable energies globally is putting pressure on this industry to recycle its waste, instead of sending it to landfill sites. Should these decommissioning and waste management costs be added into the energy production costs, as nuclear energy does, we could also see the cost of renewables escalating exponentially.
South Africa’s coal power decommissioning programme would reduce our generating capacity by over 1000 MW of baseload capacity per year over the next two decades. Eskom’s declining Energy Availability Factor (EAF) has already started this trend. The DMRE’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP 2019) does not adequately address the replacement of base-load coal power, at a pace and scale we should be planning. The low generation capacity and intermittency of renewables has proven to be ineffective in arresting load shedding. And who backs up this intermittency when Eskom is unbundled? Therefore, beyond 2030, South Africa will be in chronic load-shedding unless an effective energy expansion programme is implemented.
A transition to a sustainable energy future is only possible through a balanced portfolio of energy solutions which deliver energy security, access to affordable energy, environmental sustainability, and socio-economic development (jobs), as its key criteria. All the generation technologies we have at South Africa’s disposal can collectively achieve this.
As demonstrated internationally, nuclear energy delivers all the above criteria on its own and should therefore be prominently featured in South Africa’s energy transition. Any technology can be made cleaner and more reliable with add-on technologies, but these additional costs tend to raise the cost per kWh, or their overall CO₂ emissions. Eskom should no longer subsidise these improvised technologies when more effective solutions are at hand.
Had we followed through with 2007’s 9.6GW nuclear procurement programme, we would have had an additional 5000 MW of baseload energy on the grid, producing 40TWh of emissions-free electricity per year, which would have again doubled in the next five years. This would have mitigated load-shedding, boosted our economy, and brought us a lot closer to our decarbonization goals.
The most effective way to successfully replace our retired coal fleet, is with clean baseload power like large-scale hydro or nuclear energy. As we have seen since 2007, once you have broken your baseload foundation, it needs the most effective remedy to fix it, unless one reduces demand through deindustrialisation and economic slowdown, which load-shedding ultimately does.
Nuclear energy is easily financed through various low-cost funding models. A great opportunity for our Intensive Energy Users Industry, is to help capitalize nuclear power plants in exchange for high-capacity, long-term, competitive, and clean off-take agreements, thereby significantly reducing their CO₂ footprints while securing reliable energy supplies.
Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are also receiving a lot of attention and investment globally, making nuclear energy a great catalyst to kickstart our post-covid economies. South Africa is well positioned to establish an SMR manufacturing hub for domestic and African export projects. Given the capacity of our Grid, South Africa can implement both large and small-scale reactors, to achieve the economies of scale we need.
Our retired coal power plant sites would be ideal for SMRs. Their valuable infrastructures and available skilled resources, that can be upskilled and re-employed, are great enablers and will transform potential ghost towns into advanced clean energy hubs. By-products like process heat and green hydrogen can also add enormous value to that economy.
South Africa’s renewable energy, gas to power and own-generation programs, can also play a vital role in balancing our energy portfolio through distributed power systems at our load centres and beyond the grid, although environmentalists are starting to consider gas power generation, at 490g CO₂/kWh, a challenge. Like coal, this could pose a problem for financing and operating gas power for a nett-zero future. This leaves renewables (without batteries), hydro and nuclear energy as the leading low-carbon technologies for the future.
The Risk Mitigation Independent Power Producer Programme (RMIPPP) could have also considered upgrading our expensive, high-emissions diesel peakers to combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT) and fuelled them with cheaper and cleaner liquified natural gas (LNG). This would have been an investment in our existing Eskom and IPP assets and effectively raised their production capacity from 15%+ to 50%+, providing an abundance of dispatchable power, on demand. LNG could soon become a domestic fuel source through Total’s explorations.
Only a robust and workable energy expansion plan would get South Africa on a transition path toward energy security, environmental sustainability, and economic prosperity. It is concerning that this plan still eludes us after almost two decades, despite the valuable lessons we could learn from the global energy sector and the effort we have invested so far. Clearly South Africa needs to start taking more independent and workable advice.
Michael Shellenberger – Climate Journalist and Author: “The anti-nuclear lobby group, over the last two decades, has only successfully kept the share of fossil fuels in our global energy mix above 80%”. Are these unintended consequences?
Des Muller - Co-Spokesperson for the SA Nuclear Build Platform www.sanuclearbuildplatform.co.za