​Why SA must push for renewables

South Africa’s draft energy plan moves the country one step closer to a nuclear build. That will mean consumers paying more for electricity than they should, according to its critics. It also locks Eskom into a large nuclear build that it would have to finance throughout this century.

The Integrated Resource Plan provides a blueprint for South Africa’s energy sector. The current one is six years old and outdated. An update is needed so new infrastructure can be built to fill the gap as Eskom’s aging fleet of coal-fired power stations decommissions in the 2030s. But the nature of its replacement has been the source of bitter debate between proponents of renewable energy and proponents of nuclear energy.

A previous iteration of the plan, in 2013, was not signed off by the Cabinet. The Mail & Guardian at the time reported that this was because the plan said there was no need for any decision to be made on nuclear energy until 2025 at the earliest.

The 2016 energy plan has been approved by the Cabinet and is being released for public comment. In its current form, its base case underplays developments in renewable energy and justifies a nuclear build.

But research by the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) Energy Centre says a mix of renewable and peaking plants (the latter being plants that can be quickly switched on and off when demand exceeds renewable supply) should be picked over nuclear for South Africa’s future energy mix.

As the cheapest option, this could save the country R87-billion a year on electricity costs when compared with a mix of coal and nuclear power. It would also drive the local renewable industry, something that has stuttered thanks to the relatively small scale of the local renewable build.

The centre presented its research at the Windaba on November 3, the same day the Cabinet said it would release the draft Integrated Resource Plan for comment. Thanks to South Africa’s international commitments to lower carbon emissions — and a lack of water — coal-fired power stations feature little in either plan.

The 2013 update for the resource plan seemed to drive the country towards renewable energy. It concluded: “Flexibility in decisions should be the priority in favour of decisions of least regret. This would suggest that commitment to long-term, large-scale investment decisions should be avoided.”

The CSIR’s “reoptimised” energy plan continues that thinking and seeks an alternative to monolithic power stations. With Eskom’s fleet decommissioning between 2025 and 2040, it says that a mix of renewables and open-cycle turbines would be a better option for South Africa. This would see 70% of the grid coming from that mix by 2040.

The argument is based on money. When the country’s current energy plan was drafted in 2010, electricity from solar photovoltaic panels cost R3.65 per kilowatt-hour. It now costs 62c. The plan assumed that this drop in price would only be reached by 2030. A similar drop in wind energy costs has seen its price go from R1.52/kWh to 62c since 2010.

The reoptimised plan seems counterintuitive: to supply 68.7GW of capacity by 2040, the country needs to build 184GW of capacity. This is because the wind and sun aren’t consistent sources of energy.

That would entail 43GW from solar photovoltaic sources, 77GW from wind, 27GW from peaking, 10GW from open-cycle gas and 17GW from the coal-fired plants that are already being built. The wind and sun would provide electricity for most of the day but for about 18% of the year, the backup from peaking plants and open-cycle gas would have to kick in. Although those are expensive sources of energy, the low cost of wind and solar would balance it out.

The CSIR says the renewable and peaking component of this mix would provide electricity at an average of 85c/kWh, 18c cheaper than a mix of coal and nuclear would cost.

That leads to an R87-billion saving on electricity each year. With renewable sources supplying 70% of energy by 2040, the centre says carbon emissions from the energy sector would drop by 60% and demand would drive a large local renewable industry. The mix would also save 40-billion litres of water a year, a 60% drop from use with coal and nuclear plants. With climate projections for 2050 showing that water will be the main constraint to South Africa’s growth, water saving is at the heart of the National Development Plan.

The CSIR says all of this is possible with the technology that exists today, without any advances in a renewable energy sector in which rapid advances in technology is the norm. An impending breakthrough in battery technology could even remove the need for peaking and open-cycle backup for renewables.

But none of this will happen with a draft energy plan that would allow a nuclear build at the expense of renewable energy. That option will lock the country into a trillion-rand build and into one energy source when similar countries are seeking a mix.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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