HomeRegional NewsAfricaDoes COP26 have the muscle to save the planet and grid?

Does COP26 have the muscle to save the planet and grid?

By Des Muller, spokesperson for the SA Nuclear Build Platform

Within a few days, the developed world’s just energy transition will be showcased at COP26 where, after almost two decades, some of the latent defects are now visible, with electricity prices soaring, increased dependence on fossil fuels, while missing committed climate targets.

Hopefully, COP26 delegations and the secretariat will be brave enough to take past lessons into account and develop something more cost-effective and sustainable.  

A lesson can be found in Germany. The country had a knee-jerk reaction to Fukushima in 2011, but it seems their unfounded fears – but justified cautions for nuclear energy – are now greater than their commitments to mitigating climate change.

Climate change mitigation is not only about cleaning up the power generation sector, but it can help clean up other sectors like transport and industrial. These sectors are also major emitters of toxic pollution and GHGs into our environment, affecting air quality.

With nuclear energy being the top contributor to climate change mitigation, it is surprising that most of the resistance it receives comes from the fraternity that beats the drum for climate change.

In South Africa, while the nuclear industry welcomes private participation in its energy sector, stakeholders should be responsible for ensuring the planning and building of sustainable energy systems.

These are the systems that provide cleaner, more reliable, and affordable electricity for our country, including meaningful local employment during construction and operations. We should also ensure we don’t sacrifice the environment and our economy just for the sake of “transition”.

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COP26 determinations + no nuclear = no transition

On a global scale, the energy industry must put self-interest aside and realise that an accelerated just energy transition is simply not possible without a balanced and sustainable energy portfolio, which should include nuclear energy for stability and achieving our climate goals. Weather-dependent renewables are too slow, they don’t generate enough energy and will consume most of our pristine landscapes.  

Even a transition to electric cars will not make sense without access to clean, reliable, and affordable electricity or hydrogen, which nuclear energy delivers on-demand. Charging an electric vehicle with a coal-powered or unreliable grid makes little environmental and economic sense for the owner, other than displacing pollution from the cities and into the country.

A just energy transition will serve the interests of its purveyors, but the emphasis should be placed on serving the energy and economic interests of countries. For South Africa, given the persistence of our dire energy situation, the emphasis seems to have been placed on the former.

All the energy technologies we have at our disposal, which now includes hydrogen, should work in harmony while we carefully manage the transition toward cleaner and safer energies without disrupting the economy, our energy systems, and the environment.

in general, little is known about nuclear energy

In general, little is known about nuclear energy. The public has also been misled on the value proposition of nuclear energy, and therefore not sure whether it has a vital role to play in our energy transition or not. This polarisation in the clean energy sector has kept the world heavily dependent on fossil fuels for over 80% of its energy, which now seems to be increasing with unabated emissions.

Let’s change that skewed perception with some reality and get nuclear energy back in the world’s just energy transition, where it belongs, and give the world a chance to achieve those net-zero goals by 2050.

South Africa’s dependence on coal power plants will naturally phase out with the retirement of 25,000 megawatts over the next two decades. That’s 1.25 gigawatts a year, starting from now. This should ideally be replaced with clean baseload energy at a pace and scale needed to balance our electricity supply and demand.

These retired power plant sites are ideal for gas-to-power plants or small modular nuclear reactors (SMR) of similar capacity, to complement existing infrastructures and the labour resources. CO₂ emissions will be reduced by 50% with gas and over 90% with SMRs. The toxic pollution this process will displace will be a major benefit for the people living there.

Some of the valuable attributes of nuclear energy

  • It is the most reliable source of electricity on the grid.
  • It delivers one of the cleanest sources of electricity available today.
  • It is also ranked as the safest energy source per volume of electricity produced.
  • It provides competitive electricity tariffs in the first 20 years of operation and the lowest cost of electricity for the remaining 60 years. (Koeberg R0.40/kWh)
  • Nuclear power plants (NPP) deliver flexible, low-cost hybrid energy for electricity, heat, desalination, and hydrogen production. No fossil or battery backup needed.
  • NPPs have the lowest footprint per installed capacity and electricity generated per year and therefore has the lowest environmental impact.
  • NPPs provide sustainable employment for a wide range of our local industry, which also develops an export industry for us.
  • Nuclear Energy is delivered in large and small-scale packages to suit the specific energy requirements for central and distributed energy systems.
  •  NPPs built on proven designs by experienced EPC contractors, in partnership with the local industry, mitigates schedule & cost overruns and corruption.
  • Nuclear energy projects are easy for finance through several low-interest funding models from the countries of origin.
  • Private intensive energy users can finance part of the NPP construction in exchange for long-term, low-cost, clean hybrid energy off-take agreements.
  • Nuclear power plants use very little fuel and therefore generate small amounts of waste. Decommissioning and waste management costs are included in the tariff and responsibly managed over the long term.

The above attributes demonstrate nuclear energy’s contribution toward a just energy transition where energy security, environmental sustainability, access to affordable energy, and sustainable employment are realised.

It’s time that the energy sector, both private and utility, unite in delivering a sustainable energy policy that takes care of our environment while improving our quality of life. Nuclear energy’s important contribution to reaching our climate goals, alleviating poverty, and stabilising our energy systems will be known at COP26

Guest Contributor
The views expressed in this article by the author are not necessarily those of the publishers and/or association partners. While every effort is made to ensure accuracy, the publisher and editors cannot be held responsible for any inaccurate information supplied and/or published.