Which energy sources for SA? Nuclear, renewables, coal…

August 11th, 2015, Published in Articles: Energize, Articles: Vector


As an energy manager, an energy measurement and verification professional I have been involved in the energy field for more than 20 years. I am therefore very conscious of the need for energy efficiency, and to limit the impact on the environment. I am however not an expert in any specific field regarding the generation of electricity and hence my frustration with what’s usually in the news.

Karel Steyn

Karel Steyn

I see a future where very small photovoltaic (PV) panels will drive large industries, our vehicles, homes and everything else. Battery technology will have advanced to the point where the sun’s energy can be captured and provide for all the night-time and other periods of time when the sun does not shine as brightly.

Perhaps nuclear would have developed to the point where the spent fuel will not need to be buried but changed into something in the shape and size and weight of a very small briefcase. Where we carry this around with us and push it in where we need energy – almost like a key into a car’s ignition. We will use this in our vehicles, at the door when we get to our homes, at the office, etc. This may be very similar to the pebble-bed module nuclear reactors but on a much, much smaller scale. The fact is however, we need energy and we will have to find solutions.

But let’s be honest. It is true that generating energy from coal impacts the environment. Nuclear power stations leave some very dangerous waste which we bury in nature somewhere. The wind turbines on the hills and horizon’s do not do much to improve or keep nature as beautiful as it was and taking wind energy from nature might have a detrimental impact on future weather patterns. Neither do the hectares and hectares of PV panels in the Karoo look better than the Karoo itself nor will it change the natural habitat on the ground. Capturing energy from sea waves could destroy the natural habitats of many sea creatures. Are renewable energies then really better than coal or nuclear? Frankly we have no idea at this stage. We will learn as we go. How can we then badmouth one means of converting energy against another if we don’t really know exactly which has the lessor impact in the long term?

So then, what should we do? I suggest we do it all until we find or confirm the most appropriate solution. Use the best and most cost efficient from all renewables, all nuclear, all coal, whatever we can find useful. However we also need to consider the challenges we experience in our country. I heard an expert on the radio the other day claiming that the planned nuclear program is a bargain at R1-trillion. Is that true? R1-trillion for about 9,6 GW of nuclear power against Medupi (a new coal-fired power station) which will eventually generate 4,8 GW in total for about R150-billion?

This means that for R1-trillion an equivalent of 6667 Medupis could be build which would then provide 32 GW of electricity to South Africa. Yes, more than three times more electricity. We have both energy sources within South Africa but coal mines create more work, are easier and safer to deal with, etc. We also have much more knowledge and experience with coal and mining. So coal will pollute. What does nuclear waste do? How much work will building about eight nuclear plants create for the poor and unskilled when compared to 6667 coal fired stations? Then nuclear does not look like such a bargain to me anymore.
Also, how much work will spending half of the R1-trillion on energy efficiency and the other half on 3333 coal fired power stations create? Everything in South Africa could then also be super-efficient. We’ll need less energy. We will be more competitive. Lots of manufacturing plants will have to be built to provide energy efficiency equipment. Many more coal mines will have to be opened to provide all the coal. South Africa will create massive amounts of jobs, and what will all this do to our economy and our prosperity? Perhaps launching such a programme will also bring South Africa much closer to clean coal processes, technologies and forcing innovation in energy efficiency – possibly the very best solution to our energy and emission challenges.

Everything we humans do affects nature. The only way not to, is to use less from nature – in energy terms – be more energy efficient. Using less, switching off whatever we can. That’s the only way not to harm nature.

Send your comments to: energize@ee.co.za

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