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South Africa is in dire need of secure energy access, coupled with a clear pathway to decarbonisation. The answer to the country’s energy questions seems to lie in a well-balanced combination of gas and renewable energy. How can a country so reliant on coal make the transition from a carbon-heavy today to a carbon-free tomorrow? The answer lies in a bridge and that bridge is gas.

Moderated by Enlit Africa content director, Claire Volkwyn, a panel of experts discussed how South Africa can meet increasing demand spurred by industrial growth while solving the challenges of flexibility, dispatchability and intermittency of renewables.

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Urgently increasing energy access while decarbonising

According to Dr Minnesh Bipath, Acting CIO and General Manager at the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI), decarbonisation is non-negotiable. However, as various clean energy options become cost-competitive and more renewables come online displacing coal technologies, Bipath thinks we will need to deal with the accompanying intermittency and resolve inertia issues. In his option, flexible generation and storage will become essential. However, he believes, gas generation, as well as a blend of natural gas and hydrogen, is the solution to decarbonise the South African economy.

Bipath made it clear that South Africa’s 2019 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) requires an energy mix, a mix that includes fossils, nuclear and renewables. In order to ensure a just transition, the mix must include all of these aspects. “South Africa currently has a 36.2% unemployment rate, we can’t sustain more job losses in SA.”

According to Maurice Radebe, Head and Director of WITS Business School in South Africa, there is a clear energy source that can ensure a just transition: “To me, gas is a solid bridge – it makes sure the transition is just and inclusive. If it is not, it will make cracks, and people will get left behind.”

According to the panel, all forms of gas will be needed to decarbonise the country while ensuring jobs are created for all those currently part of the fossil fuel economy. Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG), as well as Liquid Natural Gas (LNG), offer great potential for job creation, especially due to the recently discovered gas reserves in South Africa and Mozambique.

Job creation isn’t the only reason a gas economy is vital to South Africa. Brian Gutknecht, Chief Marketing Officer, GE Gas Power in the US, believes that the unique attributes of gas power make it relevant to Africa’s energy transition. Gutknecht: “It’s the dispatchability, to turn on when needed, regardless of the weather. It can ensure resilience of the power system and help [the country] avoid loadshedding. Second, its flexibility to accommodate variable renewables, to allow us to make use of low carbon energy sources. Gas can easily ramp up and down to accommodate changing supply and demand. It can be there as a standby, running at low loads.”

But there are ore benefits to gas, according to Gutknecht:

  • Gas is abundant and affordable, especially through LNG imports
  • Small physical footprint, less space required when compared to renewables
  • Less than half the emissions of coal
  • Offers available pathways to decarbonisation, future gas plants can run on 100% hydrogen and will be emissions free
  • Carbon capture technology can ensure up to 95% of emissions can be captured

Adds Gutknecht: “These pathways to decarbonise gas means it’s less of a pathway and more of a destination providing dispatchable power when needed in a low carbon environment”.

To underline his point, Gutknecht compared the South African scenario to a successful US case study. He stated that in the US, emissions peaked in 2007. There are more than 30% fewer emissions today than in 2007. The single largest contributor to that drop is the switch from coal to gas. “It did more to lower emissions than all the renewables that were added during that same time frame,” says Gutknecht.

South Africa, the panel agreed, must encourage renewables at scale but also drive sound economics for a switch to gas. The switch will be driven by the urgency to act to prevent loadshedding, as well as meeting the power demand spurred by economic activity.

Maurice Radebe emphasised the role of governments in making this happen. He explained how government must ensure a regulatory framework that is conducive to investment and creation of employment, as well as position the tax, licensing, and tariff regimes to facilitate development.

When talking of governments, Radebe couldn’t emphasise enough the role of effective leadership in Africa’s successful energy transition. Referring to the discovery of gas reserves in Mozambique, he said: “The discovery of natural resources in Africa tends to be a curse. In other countries, it tends to be a blessing. And it is all about leadership… I hope these countries, Mozambique and South Africa, that have discovered these resources, can turn it into a blessing. I am a little bit disappointed already in Mozambique, a conflict that has caused Total to pull out – it is painful. We have been waiting for this resource to be monetised and commercialised and now, because of the conflict, everything has come to a standstill. We need peace and stability to ensure economic development.”

Radebe adds that the private sector is raring to go, but first, secure public-private partnerships are needed to ensure the gas bridge can be built to the low carbon economy.

How ready is South Africa for a gas revolution?

Dr Bipath believes there are several factors suggesting the country is ready for gas. Hydrogen is likely to be cost-competitive by 2030 and the government’s emergency power funds should spur rapid development, even bringing power ships into play, providing LNG-based power.

Said Bipath: “South Africa started developing hydrogen plans 10 years ago with the creation of the hydrogen whitepaper. [And now] South Africa also has 75% of the world’s platinum reserves – a critical component in fuel cell technology.”

Bipath adds that the Department of Science and Innovation has spent R1.2 billion ($890 million) to develop the skills and IP in this space. The Hydrogen Society Roadmap and development of the platinum value corridors will drive the country’s hydrogen economy. These projects will start by targeting the transport sector, responsible for 91% of South Africa’s emissions, possibly even reinventing rail with hydrogen trains.

In terms of the readiness of the gas plants for hydrogen, Brian Gutknecht said: “To deliver the same amount of energy with hydrogen, you need three times the volume flow. Combustion systems, therefore, need to be upgraded to ensure the balance of plant equipment is ready to accommodate hydrogen.”

GE already has 75 gas turbines that have operated on hydrogen or hydrogen-like fuels, accumulating over six million hours of operation. With a current blending capability of more than 50%, the technology seems to be here. The journey to scalability and affordable hydrogen, however, is not yet here. All we seem to need is to build the transport and storage infrastructure, which is easier said than done. Is that why gas is such a critical bridging power resource on the path to a clean energy future?

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Launching at Enlit Africa, the GE Gas power whitepaper highlights how the strategic deployment of gas power and renewables is a critical solution to sustain energy access and reduce carbon emissions in South Africa while in parallel continuing to advance the technologies for low or near zero-carbon power generation. The Whitepaper also discusses the role that gas can play in South Africa’s coal repurposing programme.