By Antonio Ruffini, Editor, ESI Africa

While South Africa’s draft 20 year Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which assumes economic growth of 4.6% a year and the requirement for 52 GW of new power generation capacity in the country by 2030, is a much needed guideline, none of it is cast in stone. Technologies evolve, economic growth patterns change, costs and availability of fuels change, and the global mood related to climate change and possible carbon taxes on developing countries remains an unpredictable variable.

The preferred revised balanced scenario selected by the IRP process as its recommendation does its best to take much of this into account. It has a strong focus on diversification from an overreliance on coal fired power generation, and uses the portfolio effect well, effectively suggesting that South Africa not put its eggs in any one basket.

The IRP modelling process came up with a variety of scenarios based on various assumptions, and the one it selected as the revised balanced scenario factors in the desire to ensure reasonably priced electricity while paying attention to minimising carbon emissions. This is a reasonable compromise, taking into account the prevailing mood worldwide, though various lobbyists and advocates for specific energy forms have already railed against it. However, the IRP, while it has paid heed, is not there to pander to specific lobbies, and any fears that the process might be unduly influenced by vested interests appear to have been unjustified.

It did listen to the wind energy industry which says that for a local manufacturing base to be established there would need to be a commitment to at least 800 MW a year of new wind capacity over a sustained period. This is exactly what IRP projects from 2016 onward, over the next decade. Over the next two decades the IRP projects the installation of almost 12 GW of renewable capacity, of which wind is the leading contender.

However, remaining true to the portfolio philosophy, it leaves scope for other renewable energy forms, such as solar, landfill, biomass and others. The IRP even makes a firm commitment to relatively experimental concentrated solar power technology (CSP), which is admirable and in line with a willingness to investigate new alternatives and be a global leader in the energy sector. The commitment to some CSP with the possibility of more should it prove successful is good politics. It should be viewed as being in line with the entrepreneurial spirit that is seeing South Africa experiment with underground coal gasification, and saw its attempt to establish a niche in the fourth generation nuclear arena with the PBMR project.

There are some significant outcomes within the IRP draft. One is South Africa’s commitment to nuclear energy, with 9.6 GW of nuclear power in the plan. This is a critical path item and if the first units are to be commissioned in 2023, according to plan, decisions will have to be taken within months. Nuclear is the only realistic base load option available within South Africa as an alternative to coal and it will help locate power generation closer to load centres that currently lack such capacity.

Ostensibly the big losers in the process are potential exporters of coal based electricity to South Africa, as they are not included in the scenario until 2027, and even then in conjunction with new technologies such as pulverised fuel and fluidised bed combustion. Imports that are covered are hydroelectric imports from 2020 with some 3.3 GW of new build options from Mozambique and Zambia in particular.

The coal sector itself will see an increase in demand within South Africa with up to 16 GW of new coal fired capacity being added and almost 12 GW being removed from service in the next two decades as old power stations reach their design life limits. This also takes into account competition from offshore for South Africa’s coal and concerns that South Africa’s coal production capacity overall may be at or near its peak. It is conceivable that those thermal stations due to be removed from service could remain in service for longer, but then Eskom would not meet targets in terms of reducing its carbon footprint.

The IRP scenario also lists over 7.5 GW of open cycle gas turbines, in addition to 1.9 GW of combined cycle gas turbines. The former in particular is very expensive and South Africa has no major proven sources of natural gas. However, OCGT technology often goes hand in hand with wind because it can switch on rapidly and is also useful as peaking plant. With a short construction lead time of about two to three years, and with much of the OCGT turbine plant only due from 2022 onwards, it leaves a lot of opportunity over the next decade for other technologies to come to the fore, that can either smooth the power demand curve, or provide peaking power.

Overall the draft IRP points the way to decisions that need to be made now, and it provides flexibility for technology evolutions and other changes that may occur in the coming decades.