Despite South Africa’s successful renewable energy programme, which has been lauded internationally, uncertainty in the country’s energy future has been deepened by the lack of clear leadership and planning in the form of the updated Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) which is many years overdue, as well as recent allegations of serious maladministration at the national power utility.
But despite the absence of an updated IRP, the country is actually viewed as being progressive and forward-thinking by those who perceive carbon emissions as the principal contributor to global pollution and climate change.
South Africa’s programme of independent power producers has resulted in the country having a number of renewable energy generating plants. These plants, comprising solar- and wind-powered generators, have put South Africa in a good light in the global environmental community. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted by the burning of coal and other hydro-carbons in boilers used in traditional power stations.
Had South Africa not built these renewable energy power plants the country would have been facing more serious demands from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for carbon reduction than it already is.
However, since the statements made at the UNFCCC’s twenty-first conference of the parties (COP21) which was held in Paris in December 2015, a number of views have been expressed regarding the viability and suitability of adding too much renewable energy-sourced electricity into South Africa’s electricity generation mix.
Although the Department of Energy (DoE) makes statements regarding the need for more independent power producers (IPPs), the power industry seems divided on how these IPPs should derive their electricity.
Solar and wind are intermittent energy sources, industry commentators say, and the varying levels of output from these power stations can make the grid unstable. Perhaps that is why the DoE, even in the absence of an updated IRP, announced three new IPPs – not for renewable energy projects as before – but for new coal-fired power stations.
To provide a steady supply of power to meet baseload demand, renewable energy installations need some form of storage technology such as batteries or pumped storage – which we do have already – combined with flexible generation plant such as gas.
Although renewable energy could assist in reducing the country’s CO2 emissions, it is not the only source of emission-free electricity. Nuclear energy offers a similar benefit with the advantage of not being dependent on external factors such as wind and sunshine. According to the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa (NIASA) and other energy experts, nuclear energy offers an ideal solution for emission-free baseload electricity.
The DoE seems to agree with this and has stated its intention to initiate the construction of a number of nuclear power stations with a combined output of 9600 MW. General opinion, however, is that 9600 MW of new nuclear will be more expensive than the country can afford, and more that we need.
Unfortunately, although statements have been made by the minister of energy and others, the official document which defines the country’s energy plan – the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for electricity – has not been updated for many years.
Recent calls from the electricity industry for the DoE to publish the updated IRP seem to have caused the energy minister to promise to make the document available, but it is yet to appear. This updated IRP document needs to include all sources of energy, including a clear roadmap for gas, nuclear, new coal, as well as additional solar and wind. Some have called for gas-powered generation to complement wind and solar PV generation which, they say, is cleaner than coal and can be built far quicker than new nuclear and coal-fired power stations. A number of people, however, question whether South Africa can source sufficient quantities of gas to fire such generation plant.
Adding to the uncertainty, Eskom’s chief executive, Brian Molefe, recently announced that no new power producer’s agreements (PPAs) would be signed with IPPs. Answering questions from the media at the utility’s recent interim integrated results meeting, he said that the costs to Eskom for electricity from IPPs are not only higher than its own cost of generation, but are higher than the tariff at which it is permitted to sell electricity, which negatively affects the power utility’s income statement. Eskom has a surplus of generating capacity which industry should take advantage of, he said.
While the power utility appears to be able to supply the power the country needs, it is very concerning that its chief executive featured prominently in the Public Protector’s recent report regarding state capture. The report alleges that the utility gave unfair advantage to Tegeta’s Optimum coal mine in the face of offers of coal from other mines and suggests an improper relationship between the owners of Tegeta and the power utility’s chief executive.
As we close the year and look forward to 2017, we hope that the updated IRP is released soon and that the uncertainty around South Africa’s electricity future is addressed and made clear. It is also hoped that the serious allegations of maladministration and the improper awarding of contracts on the part of our national power utility be thoroughly investigated and either proven or withdrawn.
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