A short guide to South Africa's energy sector for consumers
A short guide to South Africa's energy sector for consumers.

When one thinks of power generation in South Africa, the reaction is to immediately associate this with the energy crisis and loadshedding.

This reaction prompted energy company Wärtsilä to unpack the opportunities that are present in South Africa’s energy sector and explain some of the terminologies.

It is easy to paint a future of doom and gloom as Eskom’s ageing coal fleet has led to system unreliability, but there is hope on the horizon.

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South Africa

First, a quick fact sheet on consumers’ frequently asked questions:

What is the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP)?The Integrated Resource Plan aims to solve the country’s energy crisis by generating electricity through a mix of sources, with renewable energy accounting for a large portion of it. The plan directs the expansion of the electricity supply over the given period.  
Does the IRP mean that South Africa will stop using coal to generate electricity?Coal will continue to play a significant role in electricity generation as South Africa has the resource in abundance. There is however a transition to using renewable energy to generate electricity.
Can we expect loadshedding beyond 2022?A shift from South Arica’s traditional approach to power generation is needed to unleash the country’s clean energy potential and secure a future free from loadshedding.

A strategy centred around energy storage and flexible power systems will be the key to guaranteeing the reliability of a high-renewable grid, while also lowering the cost of electricity for South Africans.
Why must consumers support a transition to renewable energy?A transition to renewable energy is important as South Africa will be generating environmentally friendly energy. The use of renewable energy will significantly reduce carbon emissions which are a primary driver of climate change.

Although there are challenges in power generation, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy has taken strides in looking for alternative sources such as gas-fired power generation to achieve a flexible and reliable power system.

The Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) was released in 2019 and is Government’s plan to solve the country’s power crisis by generating electricity through a mix of sources, with renewable energy accounting for a large portion of it.

The plan states that by 2030 South Africa should have moved to renewable-based energy generation. The IRP is a fantastic opportunity for South Africa to transform its current power system into one of the most sustainable; reliable; and cost-effective energy systems globally while also reducing emissions.

The need for flexible technologies

What South Africa’s power crisis has shown is that there is a need for a fast and the most cost-effective way to address the electricity supply gap and this is possible through more flexible technologies such as renewable power technology.

But what does ‘flexibility’ really mean? In our view, a flexible generator is one that can address the power system supply and demand variations quickly and efficiently to maintain an acceptable quality of supply to the country and without negatively impacting the flexible generator.

Generators must have fast-starting capabilities with low starting costs; high degrees of availability and reliability; and must be able to generate highly efficient power at all output levels.

Wärtsilä has introduced Modular Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) power plants, which offer the system operator (in South Africa’s case, Eskom) a limitless number of fast starts and stops at no operational costs. With sub-5-minute starting times (from idle to full load), ICE power plants, of any scale, provide operating reserves without the operator having concerns about incurring start-up fuel or additional maintenance expenses.

The future looks brighter with renewable energy

By using ICE, plant system operators such as Eskom have the freedom to optimise the entire power system by cost-effectively backing up failing coal units back-up and meet the growing peak demand energy requirements, therefore, minimising the risk of loadshedding.

It will also enable the introduction of more cost-effective and sustainable renewable energy sources, which will lower the cost of power for South Africa. As South Africa tries to meet the supply and demand of business and consumers, a plant that can operate across and run optimally in a cost-effective manner will bring further benefits to consumers.

An accelerated and upscaled renewables deployment relative to that outlined in the IRP will not only stabilise the electricity price hikes which would offer relief to consumers but will potentially deliver significant employment, environmental and cost savings.

Article contributed by Wärtsilä Energy Business, an energy storage solutions, smart technologies and lifecycle solutions company. Edited by ESI Africa.