The discussion around what a true ‘just transition’ toward clean energy looks like for South Africa is always a multi-faceted topic. A lot has been said about renewable energy, but where does nuclear energy possibly fit into the picture, especially for South Africa.
Over the last decade, South Africa’s “just transition” toward clean energy has put the country’s economy at considerable risk by depriving it of energy security, an effective transition from coal, and industrial growth.
South Africa has not met its Paris Agreement decarbonisation goals and, for consecutive years, has been recording an increase in carbon intensity. To meet these goals, South Africa needs to cut its CO₂ emissions by 60% to 70% by 2050, which could deindustrialise our economy, if we continue getting it wrong.
Forecast challenges in South Africa’s energy future
Due to South Africa’s ageing generation assets, we will see a rapid decline in coal-fired power generation in our energy mix over the next decade, with the possibility of only ten gigawatts running by 2050. “Clean coal” could extend its participation in our energy mix but, like most technologies working outside their comfort zones, it could price itself out of the market.
Similarly, the high volumes of toxic waste being generated by renewable energies globally is putting pressure on the industry to recycle the waste, instead of just putting it into landfill sites. Should these decommissioning and waste management costs be included into their energy production costs, as nuclear energy does, we could also speculate renewables eventually pricing itself out of the market.
South Africa’s coal power decommissioning programme could reduce our generating capacity by between 1 and 1.5 gigawatts of baseload capacity per year over the next two decades. Eskom’s declining Energy Availability Factor (EAF) has already started that trend.
The DMRE’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP 2019) does not adequately address the replacement of baseload coal power, at a pace and scale for which we should be planning. Therefore, beyond 2030, South Africa could be chronically load shedding unless a workable energy transition is found.
A transition to a more decarbonised energy future is possible through a balanced portfolio of energy solutions which deliver energy security, access to affordable baseload energy, environmental sustainability, and economic development (jobs), as its key criteria. The generation technologies we have at our disposal together can achieve this.
Nuclear energy as a solution to the future energy woes of South Africa
Nuclear energy is the only technology that delivers all these criteria and therefore should feature significantly in South Africa’s clean energy transition. Some technologies can be made cleaner and more reliable with add-on technologies, but these additional costs tend to raise their cost per kWh or their overall CO₂ emissions. Eskom should no longer subsidise these technologies.
Had we followed through with the 2007 9.6GW nuclear procurement programme, we would have had an additional 5,000MW of clean baseload energy on the grid producing 40TWh of electricity per year, which would have doubled again over the next five years. This would have mitigated load shedding and brought us a lot closer to our decarbonising targets.
The only way to successfully replace our retired coal fleet, and achieve our sustainability objectives, is with clean baseload power like large-scale hydro or nuclear energy. As we have seen since 2007, once you have broken your baseload foundation, it is nearly impossible to fix, unless one reduces demand through economic slowdown, which load shedding ultimately does.
Nuclear energy is easily funded through innovative and competitive financing structures. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are receiving significant global attention and investment, making nuclear energy a great catalyst to kickstart our post-COVID-19 economy.
Our retired coal power plant sites would be ideal locations for SMRs. Their valuable infrastructures, including the local skilled resources that can be upskilled and re-employed, will reduce costs, and revitalise a local community. By-products like process heat and green hydrogen can also add to the local economy.
South Africa’s renewable energy, gas to power and embedded generation programs, can also play a vital role in balancing our energy portfolio through distributed power systems at our load centres and beyond the grid. Environmental purists are also finding gas generation at 490g/kWh as unacceptable, leaving renewables (without batteries), hydro and nuclear energy as the leading low-carbon technologies.
The Risk Mitigation Independent Power Producer Programme (RMIPPP) could have also considered upgrading our expensive, high-emissions Diesel Peakers to Combined Cycle Gas Turbines (CCGT), fueled with cheaper and cleaner Liquified Natural Gas (LNG). This would have been an investment in our existing Eskom and IPP assets by effectively raising their capacity from 10%+ to 40%+, providing an abundance of dispatchable power on demand. LNG could also become a domestic fuel supply in the future.
Only a robust and workable energy management and expansion plan would get South Africa on a transition path toward energy security, environmental sustainability, and economic prosperity.
Have you watched the interview?
ESI Africa’s fireside chat with Michael Shellenberger
Michael Shellenberger – Journalist and Author on Climate. “The anti-nuclear lobby group, over the last two decades, has successfully kept the share of fossil fuels in our global energy mix above 80%”. Unintended consequences?
This article was written by Des Muller, co-spokesperson for the SA Nuclear Build Platform