Balancing the energy mix: are fossil fuels really so bad?

November 13th, 2015, Published in Articles: Energize


The use of coal and gas is often viewed by environmentalists as being dirty and the cause of climate change. Although some dangerous gases and particulates are emitted when fossil fuels are combusted, modern techniques can remove much of these at source making coal and gas viable sources of energy in South Africa’s energy mix.

Roger Lilley

Roger Lilley

Fossil fuels are useful natural elements which have improved our standard of living and levels of comfort for centuries. Coal has been used to boil water to create steam for many years: steam engines drove industrial machines prior to electric motors and steam was used for rail transport until very recently. Ever since the discovery of electricity, and to this day, coal-fired boilers produce steam that drive turbines which drive generators to produce electricity.

Following the invention of the internal combustion engine, petrol and diesel – processed fossil fuels – produce the energy required for modern machines for industry and transport.

Unfortunately, the emissions which accompany the burning of fossil fuels pollute the air with particulates and toxic compounds such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulphur oxides (SOx). Further pollutants such as CO2 and CH4, termed “greenhouse gases” (GHG), collect in the atmosphere and are believed to be responsible for the warming of the atmosphere, which could have negative implications if allowed to continue unchecked.

According to presentations made at a recent Fossil Fuel Foundation conference, South Africa produced about 518-million tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2014, which equates to about 1,5% of the world’s total CO2 emissions. The bulk of South Africa’s emissions came from the production of electricity and the conversion of coal to liquid fuel. The same presentation showed that the GHG level in South Africa was likely to remain flat until 2021, mainly because no significant increase in emissions is anticipated from Eskom’s power stations.

Because of concerns for the environment, South Africa aspires to be on a low-carbon trajectory, has a carbon trading process and is contemplating the introduction of a carbon tax to discourage the use of fossil fuels. This, together with an urgent need for additional electricity generation in the short term, resulted in the government introducing a programme of low-carbon electricity generating plant in the form of solar and wind farms.

The amount of CO2 emissions these renewable energy generators may offset is still quite small because the amount of electricity currently generated by these renewable power plants is much smaller than the installed base of fossil fuelled power stations.

The renewable energy sector promotes vast increases in the use of solar, wind and hydro generators because they are pollution-free in their generation of electricity. Unfortunately they require large tracts of land to produce relatively little additional electricity.

South Africa has plenty of coal. The international demand for coal is not as high as it was, and the price of coal has fallen significantly. According to industry experts, the cost of mining and transporting coal to the coast for export is now higher than the price of coal on the international market. Furthermore, South Africa, according to an expert in the field, pays twice as much for imported liquid fuels than it receives in sales of coal.

A country’s standard of living is linked to its economic growth, and its economic well-being is linked to the access it has to electricity. Economic growth reduces unemployment and alleviates poverty, two of the government’s objectives. Economic growth and increased standards of living need access to abundant electricity.

It has been shown that, ignoring the cost of externalities, coal-fired power stations provide some of the cheapest electricity generation, even cheaper than nuclear until the nuclear plant has been paid off. Solar (both PV and CSP) and wind are significantly more expensive per kWh than coal-fired power plants, but do not produce potentially life-threatening pollutants into the atmosphere.

In addition to the rollout of renewable energy projects, it has been suggested that we build more coal-fired power stations – and upgrade existing ones to ensure environmental compliance – from which we can provide base-load power to drive a manufacturing industry which could beneficiate our mined raw materials into products which we can sell on the international market and improve the country’s balance of payments.

Energy efficiency, together with a mix of modern electricity generating plant, both fossil and non-fossil fuelled, should be our focus. We should also actively promote the use of gas for cooking and space heating, and continue to encourage the development and use of energy efficient equipment. Homes and offices should be fitted with solar water heaters, proper insulation and ventilation systems to reduce national electricity demand.

Perhaps the country should stop exporting its coal, stop turning coal into liquid fuels, and rather develop a strong electrification programme to drive transport – both rail and road transport – using the vast coal and gas reserves of the region for the purpose.

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