If South Africa is going to rely on gas to supplement wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) power generation in future, the provision of infrastructure for gas imports through Coega in the Eastern Cape and Richards Bay in KwaZulu-Natal has to be speeded up.
This is the view of Siyabonga Mbanjwa, regional managing director of global engineering group Sener, which has investments in concentrated solar power (CSP) projects in South Africa.
Mbanjwa was responding to the draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) that was recently published for comment. This is the plan that sets out the country’s energy mix until 2030 and will inform investment in energy infrastructure in the next decade.
The draft plan provides for 11 930 MW or 15.7% of installed capacity by 2030. The gas generation capacity is planned to come online in tranches from 2026 to 2029.
In terms of the plan, gas generation will be used in conjunction with 7 958 MW of solar PV and 11 442 MW of wind PV energy (10.5% and 15.1% of installed generation capacity respectively) by 2030. These technologies are set to be rolled out annually, with a gap around 2022 to 2025.
The idea is that gas generation, which can be deployed and withdrawn from the grid at relatively short notice, should balance wind and solar energy, the availability of which is dependent on weather conditions and time of day.
During the launch of the draft IRP, energy minister Jeff Radebe said there are different options when it comes to sourcing gas. These include importing it from neighbouring Mozambique, fracking in the Karoo, and offshore import. Coega and Richards Bay were earlier identified as the chosen ports for such imports.
Mbanjwa says fracking is still in the exploration phase and cannot be relied upon to provide the critical gas needed to stabilise the country’s energy system. He also questions whether the necessary pipeline and distribution network for gas imports from Mozambique could be developed in time. He says the pipeline would be more than 2 500 km long and is dependent on financing and environmental approvals, which could delay deployment.
Importing liquefied natural gas (LNG) through Coega and Richards Bay is feasible with floating regassification barges or development of such facilities on shore. However, that would however require an anchor user, says Mbanjwa, and the process would have to be speeded up to be ready to deliver the required 2 250 MW by 2026.
Dr Grové Steyn, a regulatory economist at Meridian Economics, questions the large amount of gas included in the draft IRP. Too much, too early, he says.
Steyn says the country’s coal-fired fleet will adequately balance the renewables until 2030 and points out that the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) model only introduces gas into the energy mix by 2030.
The draft plan provides for only 1 000 MW of new coal generation capacity beyond the Medupi and Kusile power stations. This 1 000 MW had earlier been announced as being sourced through two independent power producer programmes, but these have been delayed due to litigation.
In terms of the draft plan, the decommissioning of Eskom’s current coal fleet will begin in 2021, with 75% of the fleet or 30 000 MW decommissioned by 2040.
Steyn says renewable energy from independent power producers is procured in terms of a take-or-pay model and is therefore expensive and not flexible.
He believes the plan should have provided for some electricity storage.
Concentrated solar power (CSP) or battery storage could fulfill that purpose, he says, adding that these technologies are becoming cheaper and that significant technological advances regarding battery storage are expected in the next five years.
Steyn says it’s a pity that the draft plan does not make provision for new CSP energy. Government initially supported the industry but now seems to have withdrawn its support despite the fact the prices are dropping.
The department of energy did indicate that the wind and solar PV power included in the plan could be a proxy for CSP and other technologies under certain conditions, but Mbanjwa says the industry needs more detail about what that means.
Sener is involved in the 50 MW Bokpoort CSP project near Groblershoop, which has already been connected to the grid, as well as the 100 MW Kathu Solar Park CSP project (under construction, to be completed early next year) and the 100 MW Ilanga CSP project near Upington (due for completion by the end of this year).
All three projects are situated in the Northern Cape and use molten salts to store heat, which enables them to produce electricity for extended hours even when the sun is not shining.
Mbanjwa says that while the least-cost approach kicks out CSP, one must acknowledge the strategic value of the technology in terms of localisation and industrialisation.
He says the country has started to develop a CSP industry, with a research unit and a masters programme having been established at the Stellenbosch University. On a typical CSP plant, the civil works and structural steel work – including the salt tanks and the structures that hold the heat-collecting mirrors – could be localised, thus exceeding the opportunities relating to wind and solar PV. He says this justifies the inclusion of CSP through a policy intervention.
In the department of energy’s early bid rounds, localisation was around 40%, but in round 4.5 it has grown to 60%, he says, adding that South Africa has the potential to become the leading CSP supplier for the African continent.
The industry would, however, need the assurance that there is a local pipeline of projects that would provide a market that investors can believe in, he says.