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South Africa’s options for electricity generation

8 August 2013 – When countries select their electricity generation mix, there is no right or wrong answer, but usually the options and the dynamics in its electricity sector determine the outcome. Eskom communicates it can take up to seven years to build a new coal power station (at least this is how long Medupi is taking) and Nuclear even longer. Both have strong opposition from environmentalists. A new wind or solar plant can take as little as two years − however there are drawbacks to these renewables – no wind or sunshine = no power and the power flows intermittently depending on the weather.

According to the Bloomberg New Energy Finance research group, renewable energy investment in South Africa totalled  UYS$5.5 billion in 2012 – more than China, Japan and many other ‘would-be green’ economies. Not bad for the world’s seventh-biggest coal producer,

In the last quarter of 2012 the U.N. projected that by 2020 the value of the African renewable energy sector would be US$57 billion. As the present energy supply barely meets the demand, solar power is increasing in importance in this country’s economy and electricity supply strategy. Initially, high costs were the major deterrent but as technology has become more affordable and the threat of power outages increases, solar power is increasing in importance.

Renewables could account for 9% of the country’s energy mix by 2030 if the government’s IRP (Integrated Resource Plan) to supplement coal power plants is implemented. South Africa’s first independent gas engine power plant at the Sasolburg site has been producing above its rated capacity of 152 MW since coming on line in December 2012 and will operate at 175 MW over its first year of operation. The turnkey project was completed three months ahead of schedule and almost 20% below budget.

Gas engine power plants require less time to build and install, usually taking between 20 and 30 months. With promising gas reserves being explored in Southern Africa what role will gas play in the future electricity mix?

The European Wind Energy Association reported recently that in the first half of 2013 a total of 1,045 MW of offshore wind capacity was now fully connected to the grid in Europe. Although this was more than double the 523 MW installed in the same period of 2012 there was evidence of a slowdown in the industry reflecting the regulatory uncertainty in key offshore markets including Germany and the UK. However in the latest Ernst & Young index, China’s wind power capacity has increased as onshore wind farm construction has grown 40-fold over the last decade in this emerging economy.

Global electricity generation from nuclear dropped 7% in 2012 and is down nearly 12% from 2006’s peak of 2,660 TWh, according to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013. "About three-quarters of this decline is due to the situation in Japan, but 16 other countries, including the top five nuclear generators, decreased their nuclear generation too," the report said.

South Africa is faced with many options, each with its own pros and cons. The Fossil Fuel Foundation is hosting a one electricity supply conference in Johannesburg on the 15th of August that promises to be an interesting debate as proponents of the various technologies put forward the case for their particular favourite.