/ 1 June 2023

Presidential Climate Commission says no to new coal-fired power stations and nuclear energy

Eskom Getty
Although many might be eager to see Eskom go away, there are valid reasons for questioning how effective government reforms to the energy sector will actually be. Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Getty Images

The Presidential Climate Commission has concluded that there is no room for new coal and nuclear power in South Africa’s energy mix.

The commission announced this on Thursday when it released its report on recommendations for the energy mix. 

The commission was appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2020 to advise him on how the country’s electricity industry should be developed as it moves to reduce its reliance on coal and decrease its carbon footprint.

In its report, the commission recommended a least-cost option that includes 50 to 60 gigawatts of renewable energy and no new coal or nuclear power.

“Not only are these the cheapest, secure options, but they are also the only options with build times short enough to make a meaningful impact on load-shedding. These technologies would also attract the best finance terms,” the report read.

No to coal

It also warned that continuing to invest in coal would pose other risks to the economy, such as “climate change, air pollution and reduced competitiveness of our exports due to their high carbon content, which will be penalised with border taxes and will negatively impact the country’s ability to raise finance”.

“If one adds coal to the least cost energy mix, the cost of electricity increases,” it read.

The report added that capital markets are increasingly concerned about climate change and will not provide capital to industries that are not aligned with the climate transition.

“Many South African lenders and banks have policies that prohibit investment in new coal including gas which also adds to the cost of electricity — which is why it must be limited purely to meeting energy demand during peak times,” it added.

During the national colloquium hosted by the commission in March, the department of mineral resources and energy argued that the solutions on the draft copy presented by the commission for comment was not sufficient because it did not solve the limited baseload that coal and nuclear power was able to produce.

Is nuclear really cheaper?

The department argued that nuclear power was cheaper and cleaner than other sources of energy. But the commission’s head of mitigation, Steve Nicholls, on Thursday argued that there was no evidence to support that information.

“We have heard some public statements that nuclear power is cheaper than variable renewable energy. We can’t find any reference for that in the international literature.” 

He added that “traditional large-scale nuclear plants like Koeberg take a long time to build and are costly, despite the cost per kilowatt hour or unit of electricity”.

He said some stakeholders are concerned that renewables such as solar photovoltaic and wind will not ensure a secure electricity supply. 

“Local and international studies indicate that renewable energy systems, if well managed, are still a secure and least cost option. Additionally, if we add the 50 to 60 gigawatts of renewables, it would also create space and stability on the system to decommission 12 gigawatts of coal power stations as they reach the end of their life,” he said.

Last month, during the Enlit Africa conference in Cape Town, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe announced that his department would issue a request for proposal for 2 500 megawatts of nuclear power as part of the Integrated Resources Plan (IRP).

The IRP maps out where energy technologies must be sourced from to meet demand. This will be in addition to the 1 800 megawatts Eskom hopes to secure by extending the life of the Koeberg nuclear power station by 20 years.

Renewables are still the cheapest

Nicholls said that models show the cheapest option for South Africa is to roll out renewables such as solar and wind — about eight to nine gigawatts a year — that are supported by storage batteries or pumped hydro plants and peaking power sources like gas of about three to five gigawatts.These peaking plants would also be operated at a low level and not all the time.

“None of the models build new coal or nuclear or have gas at high use. None of the models, including the IRP2019 least-cost scenario, build new coal or nuclear, even though these are technology options within the models. This is because these technologies are not the least cost options,” the commission’s report read.

In 2021, the government released a draft of the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) that includes nuclear power as one of the options for meeting the country’s energy needs.

It proposed the construction of 2.5  gigawatts of new nuclear capacity by 2030, with the first reactor coming online in 2030 and the last one in 2035. 

The IRP also includes investments in renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and hydropower.

The commission said it “understands” that the updated IRP, will detail how the electricity industry could be developed until 2050 and will, unlike previous editions, detail what is needed in terms of expanding the transmission grid.

The recommendations come at a time when South Africa is suffering its worst power cuts, with load-shedding of more than 10 hours a day, and is opening up the electricity generation industry to private operators.

For the commission, adding renewal energy to the grid would be the solution to load-shedding and a more affordable option.

Mandisa Nyathi is a climate reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa