/ 31 August 2018

Reason lights up new energy plan

Wind, solar, gas and battery power feature in the revised energy plan, whereas nuclear power has been shelved and coal diminished. (David Harrison)


In launching South Africa’s new blueprint for energy —the Integrated Resource Plan 2018 —Energy Minister Jeff Radebe did not mention former president Jacob Zuma. But this plan could not have existed during the Zuma decade.

Welcoming the release of the long-awaited report on Monday, Radebe said government is still using a plan drafted in 2010. This was meant to be updated every two years, allowing it to change the blueprint according to advances in technology.

Between 2010 and now, for instance, the price of energy from wind and solar sources has dropped by about 200%. People and industries are also using less energy than the 2010 plan projected they would. Use has declined by 0.6% a year, when the plan predicted it would grow by at least 3% a year. Eskom’s power plants work 71% of the time, instead of the projected 86%. Industries were pushed to become more efficient because there was less energy available as a result of the energy blackouts of 2009 as Eskom ran out of coal. This also resulted in smelters moving their factories overseas.

South Africa is now using as much energy as it did in 2007 —30% less than projected.

In updating the plan in 2013, energy planners made the political mistake of saying nuclear was not needed. The planners called for a mix of energy sources, asking that choices of “least regret” be made. This view was driven by the sluggish growth in the economy and because energy demand was declining. No decision on nuclear needed be made until the mid-2020s under their scenario, they said.

The Mail & Guardian previously reported that,when the plan was finalised, Cabinet chose to ignore it. And part of the reason finance ministers Pravin Gordhan and Nhlanhla Nene lost their jobs was their opposition to a costly nuclear build.

In the interim, the renewable energy industry was put on hold by Eskom, which refused to sign off on agreements with wind and solar energy providers.

The only reason nuclear didn’t go ahead was a court ruling last year, thanks to a case brought by the Southern African Faith Communities Initiative, that sent government back to start the nuclear process again.

The 2018 plan does away with nuclear energy. Instead it sees every source of energy currently under construction, including those that have been signed off on, completed in the next decade.

This will coincide with Eskom shutting down its fleet of older plants during the course of the 2020s. This will take away 1200 megawatts of energy — but the same amount will come online as the giant coal-fired plants at Medupi and Kusile start working.

The two plants will be part of a total of 1800 MW of new energy production that will be available by 2030.

The biggest shift will be in the use of gas power stations in the grid, with 1200 MW of capacity built by 2030. Using gas for power stations is increasingly common practice in countries that use a lot of renewable energy.

Gas plants can be quickly turned on or off, whereas coal plants can’t and instead have to be paid to stay on.

About 114 MW of wind and 800 MW of solar power will work with the gas to create a mixed grid.

There is, however, an option that battery technology —which is advancing rapidly and is seen as the next big breakthrough in energy — will replace gas.

By 2030, these changes mean coal will make up 46% of the grid, a dramatic decrease from its current 80%. That will then steadily drop as coal-fired plants turn off in their old age, with Medupi and Kusile living on until the second half of this century.