/ 4 November 2010

If we produce too much carbon dioxide, so what?

Investing in greener energy sources shouldn’t be a priority for South Africa as money should instead be spent on fixing socioeconomic challenges, urged a panelist at a public debate this week.

Professor Kevin Bennet — director of the Energy Research Centre and a professor at the University of Cape Town’s engineering department — said that investing in new energy technology would not help most poor South Africans with limited access to education and healthcare. Bennet was one of four panelists at this week’s Shell Dialogues that interrogates energy issues.

The event was co-hosted by the Mail & Guardian at the Gateway to Robben Island venue in Cape Town. The conversation was moderated by TV presenter Lerato Mbele and recorded for broadcast on DSTV channel CNBC Africa.

The panelists discussed the possibilities of using natural gas as part of South Africas’ energy mix to produce electricity. South Africa currently relies on coal for its electricity production while the government is pushing for nuclear energy and exploring solar energy to producer power.

Bennet argued that South Africa’s resources shouldn’t be swallowed by newer, greener energy technology because “we are in a country where there are a lot of people who are low-down on the economic triangle”. He said funds should be directed to helping the poor first.

“We have social, health, education problems. If we produce a bit too much carbon dioxide, so what? The whole of Africa is producing 6% of the world’s carbon dioxide; South Africa less than 2%. We have some other big problems. Government needs to decide if it’s important to produce new energy sources to cut back on carbon dioxide or is it more important to create jobs and get the economy going. We’re not the worst emitter. We can get back to that,” said Bennet.

Focus on health, education
Carbon emission is not the biggest problem in this country. American and China and the other big coal users should make a difference. Rather than going for expensive options we should focus on health, education and social upliftment.”

Bennet said that considering natural gas as a source to produce electricity shouldn’t even be considered yet as South Africa had no resources in this regard. Natural gas would have to be imported from neighbouring African countries which South Africa sells electricity to.

“Let’s not try and prove to the world that we are going ga-ga over this. Natural gas is not the answer at all. It is a high greenhouse emitting option. We have to look at renewable energy, not gas. It’s going to be expensive to exploit and it won’t cut carbon emissions … We have to be realistic. It’s going to be coal, nuclear and some renewable energy. Cost will dictate. We have to go cheap and get the economy going. Then we need to gradually go into the clean energy when we can afford it,” said Bennet.

Another panelist, Brian Statham — chairperson of the Energy Access Partnership — agreed that cutting carbon dioxide emissions should not be South Africa’s “top priority”. His organisation is a “multinational non-profit organisation seeking to alleviate energy poverty in rural areas”.

Paying the social price
“There are 800-million people in Africa who have no access to energy sources. That’s a debilitating effect on people. We are going to pay a massive social price for these people who are not able to be educated or have access to healthcare. That’s a bigger environmental problem than emitting carbon dioxide,” said Statham.

“Carbon dioxide is a problem in the world but we’re a small player. It’s great that we want to cut emissions. But let’s not put that as a top priority at the expense of some other major issues we face in the country … We have to be careful not to focus all our resources on energy without balancing it with fixing the social problems.”

He said that exploiting natural gas could be “one of the answers” to securing energy in South Africa in the future.

“We have to find the right mix of a variety of energy options. Coal will be part of it. We don’t have an abundance of natural gas. We’ll depend on importing gas. We also have to consider wind, hydro and solar power. There’s also nuclear that joins the mix,” said Statham.

“We make a mistake when we think that everybody needs to be connected to a grid. Our population is dispersed and we need to find applications for off-grid energy supplies. We need to look at solar energy that can suit villages.”

He said that natural gas came with risks and costs. As it had to be imported, the cost would fluctuate according to what the market dictated. South Africa would also need to build natural gas power plants as these did not exist.

Questions about investing in various energy sources could not be answered without moral considerations. South Africa’s dependence on coal-based energy manufacture meant the country continually emits carbon dioxide. And yet the South African government was committed to reducing toxic emissions into the environment while ensuring energy supply.

Panelist Rupert Taylor, principal consultant in Shell’s gas and energy planning division in The Netherlands, said that using “natural gas is very good in terms of air quality”.

“The natural gas infrastructure will need a significant amount of development. It does require a major investment. There also needs to be a framework for it … There is a need to investigate what gas the country can store. There are efforts to uncover gas locally,” said Taylor.

Mix of energy sources
Panelist Anton van Wyk co-owns ICE Finance, which “focuses on structured insurance products, property management and alternative energy” and his focus was to “investigate commercial opportunities in alternative energy generation”. He said using natural gas technologies — as with introducing other new energy drivers — would “impact our GDP negatively”.

“There are various options to generate energy, some more cost effective than others. Coal is very cheap but it has carbon dioxide emissions. Our economy can’t afford technologies. We need to look at a mix of energy sources … Solar is expensive. It will reduce the GDP and reduce jobs,” said Van Wyk.

He said if South Africa found suitable natural gas then “we can start producing electricity it two years”.

“It’s easier to get going with gas but in the long-term it is more expensive that solar,” he warned.

This discussion will be televised on DSTV’s CNBC Africa (channel 410) on November 8 at 6:30pm.