Greenpeace believes South Africa can be 100% reliant on renewable energy, but an energy expert does not foresee us relying heavily on renewables for the next 30 years.
While some have called on increased investment in renewable energy, the truth is that South Africa is unlikely to be free from the clutches of coal, and by extension Eskom’s increasing prices, any time soon, according to experts.
In the coming weeks, renewable energy players will be holding their breath while they wait for bid documentation for 2 000 MW of emergency power to be released.
The Mineral Resources and Energy Department budget vote address delivered by Minister Mmaloko Kubay-Ngubane on 21 July announced that the emergency power programme unlocks R250 billion in investment opportunities for, among others, the renewable energy and storage sector.
This will allow the department’s 2019 Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity (IRP) to be implemented, as soon as energy regulator Nersa makes a decision on the second Section 34 Determination.
Renewables, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), liquefied natural gas (LNG) and fracking are being explored to take pressure off Eskom’s overburdened power grid.
But despite renewable energy potentially being relied on more for emergency power, Greenpeace Africa climate and energy campaigner Nhlanhla Sibisi said this would not fix a broken system, and that load shedding will continue to plague the country “until we decarbonise our electricity sector, with the backdrop of the climate crisis still firmly in place.”
Allowing renewables to become more prominent in the country’s energy mix is essential, but it cannot be done overnight, due to technical and financial setbacks, said energy expert Chris Yelland.
Sibisi told The Citizen that over 90% of the country’s energy needs are satisfied by coal.
Many of the country’s coal plants will soon reach the end of their lifespan, and with projections indicating a continually increasing demand for electricity in the future, he emphasised that Eskom must transition completely to renewable energy.
Moving away from coal faster than the department’s aim to keep coal dominant in the energy mix for the next decade is a challenge when the IRP has imposed annual build limits on renewables until 2030.
41% of George airport’s energy requirements are provided by solar panels. Image: This is Africa
The completion of units at Medupi and Khusile power plants also extend our reliance on coal by around 50 years.
Sibisi emphasised that renewable energy can provide grid stability, and has the capacity to support South Africa’s power grid.
“To date, global research has proven that renewable energy can provide grid stability, and as Greenpeace, we believe this can be achieved by a 100% move towards renewables.”
But Yelland lamented that it may take up to 30 years for renewable to account for 50% of the electricity mix.
South Africa’s renewable energy sector currently contributes 5% to the grid.
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“I do not foresee having 100% renewable energy in the mix within the next 40 to 50 years.
“That’s not to say we shouldn’t aspire to have more renewables than we do now. But we are behind the curve in terms of international standards.”
Being behind the curve is not always a bad thing, Yelland added, explaining that those at the frontline of renewable energy will pay significantly more.
“Sometimes it’s best to be a follower, go through the learning curve, wait for lower prices and come in later … You can take advantage and leapfrog over other countries’ experiences. In technology, sometimes being a leader is not always the best.”
This also depends on whether South Africa intends to be a consumer or manufacturer of renewable energy. Yelland explained that manufacturers would want to take the lead and set the pace, for fear of there being too much competition.
“With a strategic approach and shift towards clean and sustainable energy, a just transition could take us towards a decarbonised electricity system,” Sibisi said.
Medupi coal-fired power plant in Limpopo. Photo: Eskom
But the road towards this transition is rocky at present.
One example is environmental justice service GroundWork’s current court battle with Nersa and the Department, after seeking explanations on 900 MW of new coal capacity ‘already procured’ according to the IRP, as well as a plan to introduce 1 500 MW of new coal capacity to the grid.
Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) advocate Nicole Loser said this is not the time to be building new coal plants, especially when we should be looking to save money where possible.
She warned that “the longer we delay the transition, the more the country locks itself into fossil fuels that will be obsolete in the next few years. The sector is uncompetitive. Decisions like these lock South Africa out of a global conversation.”
GroundWork’s stance is that investing in new fossil fuel-based electricity resources will lock South Africa into higher greenhouse gas emissions for at least the next 30 years.
Wind turbines at Kouga Wind Farm in the Eastern Cape. Image: Kouga Wind Farm
When comparing waste streams generated from solar energy, coal and nuclear, the differences are stark.
Yelland explained that solar power only has waste streams during the manufacturing and decommission stages. A typical solar plant has an operational phase of 20 years, in which no emissions or waste are generated.
When a solar plant reaches the end of its life, some products can be recycled.
Coal plants operate for 30 to 50 years, and generate waste streams in the form of ash dumps and fly ash, the latter of which sees millions of dangerous ash particles hurtling into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide due to coal burning causes climate change.
The mining of coal also generates waste streams, in the form of acid mine drainage and toxic chemicals, emitted during the entire lifespan of a power station.
Nuclear energy emits significant waste streams during construction and decommissioning, in the form of nuclear-contaminated equipment and stored radioactive nuclear waste. Yelland said that most nuclear waste is stored in temporary sites, but that the final disposal of it has not yet been resolved.
Nuclear waste leaks seeping into the ocean or water table spells disaster, he added, emphasising that nuclear waste has to be handled, managed and stored carefully.
SA’s Koeberg nuclear plant. File Picture: Gallo Images
“Eskom has the opportunity to lead this transition. Unfortunately, the business model applied by Eskom, the mismanagement and corruption in Eskom’s fleet proved to be the Achilles heel of the utility,” Sibisi lamented.
The most promising solution to give renewable energy a chance to meet the country’s electricity demands, according to Sibisi, is if there is a “correct political will” in working harder to curb South Africa’s emissions.
In this way, the country could work towards stipulated implementation of cleaner energy sources with ease, and in the process improve the health of millions of South Africans choking due to inferior air quality as a result of pollution.
With technology changing at a rapid rate, South Africa may be better placed to follow Yelland’s advice and wait for renewables to be brought on by countries like Germany, who pay high prices for electricity.
In this way, using more renewable energy to supplement our power grid would be a more affordable and efficient way to produce cleaner energy in the long-term, and decrease the country’s reliance on coal.
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