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Why South Africa can’t make a massive shift to renewables – yet

A major global energy transition is redefining the way electricity is generated and supplied.

There’s a lively debate raging in South Africa about the extent to which renewables should replace coal, particularly given the threat of climate change. The country’s electricity supply is currently highly dependent on coal. While it’s clear that coal power won’t disappear any time soon, is a 100% renewables-driven electricity generation scenario feasible – and desirable – in a generation from now.

A major global energy transition is redefining the way electricity is generated and supplied. In the past, electricity production was dominated by large and often polluting power mega-plants distributed through big power lines. But the trend is now towards small-scale units primarily feeding localised electricity networks.

These changes are being been driven by powerful factors. Firstly, there’s the grave threat of climate change which is being caused, to a significant degree, by the emission from coal power stations.

Another factor has been that nuclear energy – though clean – has become financially uncompetitive. And nuclear plants that are already under construction are invariably plagued by delays and cost overruns, as well as allegations of impropriety in the procurement process.

The other major driving factor has been the development and scaling up of renewable energy technologies. This has been made possible by major cost reductions that have made wind and solar photovoltaic electricity the cheapest options.

South Africa has a lot going for it when it comes to renewable energy – good sunshine and coastlines that lend themselves to wind power generation. But a number of factors stand in the way of its ability to move entirely away from coal. The biggest is that wind and solar power are intermittent, and new technologies haven’t yet been developed that allow for cheap and effective storage.

South Africa’s electricity landscape

South Africa’s latest electricity plan – the Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity – is under discussion. A finalised plan covering the period up to 2030 is expected to be ratified before the end of this year.

The present draft has largely been positively received. It envisages slower growth in electricity demand than previously projected. It also excludes any new nuclear development for the next 12 years.

The new draft recommends a strategy that envisages considerable growth in renewable energy generating capacity. This would be coupled with intermittent short-term electricity generation from gas during phases when wind and solar are unable to meet electricity demand. This is recommended as the cheapest option.

The reason for preferring gas to, say, nuclear, is that even though gas is the most expensive fuel used in electricity generation, gas power stations are far cheaper to build. They can also be switched on and off more quickly than competing fuel-based technologies such as coal and nuclear power.

The optimal scenario projections

The proposed scenario projects the addition of the following power generating capacity between 2019 and 2030: 9.5GW wind, 6.8GW solar, 8.1GW gas, 6.7GW coal and 2.5GW hydropower. This includes projects already approved, or under construction, in particular the remaining units from the Medupi and Kusile coal plants.

These figures reflect what’s envisaged at maximum power generating capacity – for example, what wind farms would produce when it is windy and what solar devices would generate in sunny conditions. In the case of gas, the intention is to treat this capacity as a backup. These would only operate when the other sources can’t meet electricity demand.

Looking at the average electricity to be generated South Africa’s energy mix would still be dominated by coal in 2030. The breakdown of electricity produced by source would be: coal 64%, wind 13%, solar 8%, nuclear 4%, hydropower 3% and gas 1%.

The plan’s recommendations only cover the period 2019-2030. But it also provides draft models for the energy mix as far ahead as 2050. It predicts that in 2050, under the optimal scenario, 42% of electricity will come from wind, 20% from solar, 17% from coal, 11% from gas and no nuclear.

This means that, according to most present energy planning models, 100% renewable electricity in South Africa is not on the horizon.

Is 100% electricity from renewables possible? 

Several countries already draw almost all of their electricity from renewable power sources. These include Costa Rica, Iceland, Norway and Paraguay. They are all much less populous than South Africa, and enjoy large hydropower resources. South Africa, for its part, is a water-scarce country.

But South Africa has a number of things going for it. It has a lot of sunshine, and its coastline and escarpment offer superb sites for wind farms.

So how would South Africa achieve 100% renewables in its mix? It can’t rely on gas, which is not a renewable energy source. Nor can it count on hydropower, even though mega-projects are planned along the Congo river.

Then there are interesting alternatives such as biofuels and ocean current power. But they haven’t been properly established.

This leaves wind and solar. The Achilles heel with both is that the quest for the fully renewable energy supply relies on the ability to store electricity generated over long periods.

Tremendous progress has been achieved in improving the capacity of storage devices and in commercialising newly developed technologies. But cheap long-term electricity storage is still largely out of reach – or impractical.

Ultimately it’s the nature and cost of technological advances – whether in storage or in one of a wide range of power generating technologies – that will determine whether South Africa can shift its energy mix dramatically towards renewables.

Hartmut Winkler is a professor of Physics at the University of Johannesburg. 

This article was published with the permission of The Conversation, the original publication can be viewed here

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Visit the nuclear power plant koeberg. The advertised place in South Africa for nature lovers. Hiking trails, the lot, all done as byproduct of making electricity. The future is nuclear. Not a field to make quick money like in renewables.
To go nuclear is far more demanding of IQ available quota in humans.
Wind or solar power to, if the stuff is not blowing, or in times we call night.

Large scale nuclear is dead, not financially viable. The industry needs to rethink it’s approach and maybe smaller units could make sense.

Storage costs are coming down drastically and the innovations in that space are moving quickly, wind and solar power is cost effective and gas/coal are more economically viable than nuclear.

Who knows what the future is but nuclear is the past.

There are currently about 150 power reactors (as opposed to research reactors) planned or under construction. To say “nuclear is the past” is simply rank ignorance.

And how many of those are actually going to be built, Numerous nuclear plants that have been stalled for years because they are becoming less competitive, less liquidity and less investor interest.

“to say “nuclear is the past” is simply rank ignorance.”

Silly insult aside, the reality is the scale of other generation technologies being installed vs nuclear is growing quite rapidly. Where did you find the data on 150 planned nuclear reactors?

Of the 150, 50 are currently under construction and 100 planned. Data from the World Nuclear Organisation.

The term “is past” would apply to things like typewriters and fax machines. Nobody even makes these anymore. Simply because other generation capacities are growing faster (off a very low base) than nuclear does not make nuclear “past”. The same thing could be said of electric or petrol cars. Growing off a low base is easy.

No insult intended.

France relies mainly on nuclear while Germany is planning to shut them down and investing heavily in renewables. Interestingly electricity prices in France are much lower than in Germany.

For all purpose, most of the designing for warship power plants is nuclear. All U.S aircraft carriers, most subs, have it. For one reason only. Unlimited power and cost effective. One plant on board provide energy for water, food cooking, and propulsion, unlimited. There is no alternative. It is the future.

@Bas, are you really trying to justify nuclear as the future because that is the power source of choice on warships? The constraints on a warship which is out at sea for months at a time are very different to designing a power solution for a country with none of those restraints. It will be interesting to see electric vehicle applications as the race to fully electric long haul trucks seem to be next on the agenda.

@Richard, I was referring to large scale nuclear which is becoming less and less competitive (on a LCOE basis in SA for example it is by far the most expensive technology). Single unit generators of small scale may be the way forward for the technology. “In the past” may have been too strong a phrase and to be clear, I am not anti-nuclear but I just don’t see how anyone can come to the conclusion that it is the generator of choice for the future, I would be hesitant to say that about any tech at the moment, a lot of industry experts seem to suggest that smart grids and storage are likely to lead to decentralized generation in which case I can’t see how large scale nuclear features in that set up.

teamed209 to add to your smaller units – NASA busy building one for Mars.

Initial tests in Nevada on a compact nuclear power system designed to sustain a long-duration NASA human mission on the inhospitable surface of Mars have been successful…

@Bas. Am with you on nuclear, as one of the solutions (in conjunction with wind/solar)

You mention US aircraft carriers, many large subs, being nuclear driven. For our readers, it’s interesting to realise that for example a nuclear aircraft carrier needs refueling up to every 20 years (out of an estimated 50 yr life cycle of such large ships). Hence on 2-3 refuels over 50 yrs.

And compare that with (polluting) marine diesel consumption of a large container ship (at 21 knots): an estimated 150 TONS of diesel is used PER DAY of voyage! Tons…not litres. ONE ship, people!

That’s 55,000 TONS of diesel consumed per annum X 20 years (when the carrier would need refuel) = 1 million tons of diesel (and NOx) into atmosphere. Nuclear carrier = nil.

Interesting that the author makes the claim that solar is an intermittent power source with no practical or economical 24-hour duty-cycle yet available.

How does this statement square with the proposed Solar Reserve Redstone molten-salt solar unit proposed for Posmasburg outside Kimberly – which appears to elegantly SOLVE that exact problem?

This plant is directly based on a very successful prototype plant that has been operating in the USA for several years now.

I’d be interested to know from the more expert commentators here, why this technology does not have more fanfare. And what the progress (or distinct lack of it, actually!) on this plant at Posmasburg is.

It seems a winning idea that has already earned its spurs? And would appear to be a ideally suited to SA. So what am I missing???

Besides the changes on the generation side, there are big changes at end-users that will have tremendous impacts.

1. Efficiency. When a kwh was 14c in 2008, big users paid little attention. Now at blended average of over 110c, it is a different story. Same or more output with a third less kwh needed is very often possible.

2. Self generation. Though not easy for relatively low energy density users like offices, there are high density users such as massive cold rooms that can and do displace half their grid energy need with solar on their own roofs. Perfect model because the more the sun shines, the more energy they need, etc.

If batteries continue their current trend to below 200c storage LCOE, and grid energy continues its current trend, then number 3 above will be users that self generate and consume a lot, generate and store a lot for later use, and use a little bit of grid or even go off-grid.

Central supply has lost its omnipotency, probably for good

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