Getting our house in order
World leaders, diplomats, bankers, business executives, environmental activists, civil society and the media will descend on Durban in the last week of November for the 17th annual Conference of the Parties (COP17) and related meetings.
Does this forum hold any chance of success? Will it follow the mediocre, arguably marginally successful but disappointing Copenhagen (COP15) and Cancun (COP16) conferences before it? Or will it be largely a marketing event, a fortnight of heated battles, high hopes and failed dreams not unlike the last big international event we hosted in 2010?
As South Africa makes final preparations to host COP17, we are looking to put our best foot forward.
Our minister of international relations and cooperation, Maite Nkoana Mashabane, is the official incoming president of the meeting and would-be broker of progress in the international climate change agreements. She is well aware that South Africa needs to show leadership by making credible commitments to transition to a low-carbon economy if it expects other emerging and advanced-economy states to do the same.
At COP 15, President Jacob Zuma took a bold move to commit South Africa to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 42% from business as usual by 2025, but the question is how this will be done. The energy sector, particularly electricity generation and coal-to-liquid fuels production, remain the highest emitter of greenhouse gases.
Due to our coal riches, we have the legacy of being one of the highest per capita carbon dioxide polluters in the world. Cheap electricity from coal has been the basis of South Africa’s industrial and mining economy. This has been a success factor in high rates of urban electrification in the last 15 years.
However, to meet South Africa future requirements we now have to choose between private independent power producers (IPPs) and state-owned utility generation (Eskom). And between keeping a coal-intensive trajectory, or using lower carbon alternatives, including gas, nuclear, hydro, wind and solar technologies.
Government conducted the integrated resources planning process last year which culminated in what is known as the Integrated Resource Plan 2010-2030 (IRP). While silent on the first issue of private vs. public generation, the IRP plan is instructive on the technology mix and optimises this within the primary constraints of limited carbon emissions and the cost of such technology choices.
The winners of this process were nuclear, wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) power, and were each allocated a large portion of the capacity allocation for the next 20 years, at 8 400MW of solar PV, 8 400MW of wind and 9 600MW of new nuclear capacity. All three of these have zero direct carbon emissions, as they do not burn fossil fuels. All three are expensive, compared to the cost of coal and gas power stations, if for coal and gas you use a simple overnight cost for MW capacity installed, and do not consider their serious environmental impact and highly variable fuel costs.
There are important recent developments in government’s thinking about energy. Interestingly, the National Planning Commissions’ recently released National Development Plan (subtitled: Vision for 2030) calls for a re-assessment of nuclear power investments stating that “thorough investigation [is still needed] on the implications of nuclear energy, including its costs, safety, environmental benefits, localisation and employment opportunities, uranium enrichment, fuel fabrication and the dangers of weapons proliferation.”
This is at odds with the somewhat gung-ho approach to nuclear which some in government appear to have, and the IRP treats nuclear as fait accompli. Other than the IRP process, we have yet to have a national debate on the risks and merits of nuclear for the country. Meanwhile there is considerable lobbying by US, Japanese, French, Korean and Chinese consortia to get this business which could easily run to above R500-billion for six new proposed pressurised water reactors.
Who will pay this cheque? Cost is probably the most difficult challenge of nuclear, but certainly not its only sticky issue. In any case the decision to embark on a costly and complex nuclear procurement process should not be rushed as is proposed by the IRP, in order to satisfy a 12-to 16-year lead time for these nuclear power stations.
There are plausible alternatives to nuclear if one seriously considers the potential scale-up of renewable power technologies (particularly large hydro, wind, solar thermal and solar PV), and also carefully examines the application of smart grid systems, increased energy efficiency and balancing base load, intermediate and peaking power.
The National Planning Commission (NPC) proposes to seriously consider liquefied natural gas (LNG), coal seam and shale gas as a source of energy and infrastructure development, both for electricity and fuels generation. Coal shale fracturing technology, also known as “fracking”, is relatively new and many international studies have found it to be environmentally risky.
In South Africa it has also become a very emotive and political issue, to the extent that government has put a moratorium on Shell’s shale gas exploration in the Karoo until the major issues can be resolved. If it is possible to sufficiently address the main problem of critical water-scarcity and water-pollution, and establish appropriate government oversight to regulate this new technology, it may offer a new source of energy and potentially a whole new fuel industry can be developed, albeit this at least a decade away.
A much safer and easier option is to increase our capacity to import, refine, transport and store natural gas in South Africa. Natural gas could have the potential to serve as a bridging technology between coal and low-carbon alternatives. This is because natural gas typically burns with considerably less carbon dioxide emission than coal does.
If readily available it can also be used for gas peaking for high demand periods using highly efficient combined cycle gas turbines. The other advantage of gas is that it can be used for safe household space and water heating and cooking, which reduces the load on the national grid. Gas used effectively at a household and industrial level also complements solar water heating and distributed solar PV and other forms of power generation which will become increasing prevalent.
The second development is government’s renewed interest in the Grand Inga Hydroelectric project in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A cooperation agreement was signed last weekend which effectively restarts the envisaged 5 000MW Inga/Westcor project and could facilitate steps to further harnessing massive hydroelectric power in the form of the Grand Inga project (40 000 MW+).
In many ways large hydroelectric is the answer to southern Africa’s problem of finding a suitable base load of power generation as an alternative to coal. It is certainly cheaper and cleaner than gas and nuclear, and less risky than both from an environmental perspective. The usual criticism of large dams from the environmental lobby is less relevant here as the envisioned ‘Grand Inga’ Dam lies near the mouth of the Congo river, and therefore has less environmental effects than other super projects such as China’s Three Gorges Dam.
However, the most promising solution to reducing our carbon intensity in the short-to-medium term is in solar and wind. Both are mature industries and proven low-risk technologies, and have zero direct emissions or pollutants. Wind, solar photovoltaic and concentrated solar thermal (CSP) technologies have shown globally that they can substitute mainstream conventional power sources.
The recently-launched Renewable Energy IPP Programme will procure up to 3 725MW of new generation capacity that will be fed into the Eskom grid for the next 20 years. The programme operates on a competitive tender basis which serves to choose the most reliable and affordable renewable power for the country.
The NPC proposes, in line with the IRP, to increase this allocation to a whopping 17 800MW over the IRP 2010-2030 period, which would make a serious shift in the energy mix. This programme has a number of economic benefits including the transfer of financial and operating risk from government to the private sectors, the creation of new industrial growth, technology transfer and jobs, and the empowerment of local communities where the projects will be based.
If implemented as planned, the IPP programme will put South Africa on the international map at a time when European and US renewable industries are struggling, mainly due to fiscal constraints and the lack of growth in those markets. Govenment has promised to award preferred bidder status to successful bidders by end of November.
No doubt government will want to be seen to be making some progress when it takes the hot seat in Durban. Our unique role in the conference offers us the opportunity show that South Africa has the political will to tackle the serious international challenge of climate change.
Hopefully beyond making grand commitments we will be able to show how we can do this, and this process forces us to think through the tough trade-offs that will we have to make. If nothing else COP17 will force us to get our own house in order.
Ralph Berold @ralphberold works in the renewable energy sector. He writes in his personal capacity.
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