Mark Tanton,
26 July 2010 – The government’s integrated resource plan (IRP), expected to be released in September, has had little input from consumer groups and civil society.

This was one of the few points that delegates at a conference on renewable energy could agree on. A heated argument over South Africa’s energy mix erupted on Thursday as various interests lobbied for preference in the government’s long-term plan.

The debate, hosted by the South African Wind Energy Association, (SAWEA), featured various members of the energy, finance and environmental sectors.

Adele Greyling, Eskom’s renewable power programme manager, is confident the mix could include 25% renewable sources by 2030.

"We hope that when the integrated resource plan is finalised it addresses security of supply concerns, but still provides diversification. Medupi might be the last coal power station," she said.

Eskom is a major contributor to SA’s position as one of the world’s top 20 greenhouse gas emitters. At the UN climate conference in Copenhagen last year, SA committed itself to reducing emissions by 34% by 2020 and 42% by 2025. But with growing demand for power and shrinking reserve capacity this may be ambitious, some observers noted.

SA, with installed capacity of around 40000MW, produces 90% of its electricity from coal. Most of the remainder is from the Koeberg nuclear reactor in Cape Town and various hydroelectric and pumped storage schemes. Less than 1% of energy comes from renewable sources.

SAWEA chairperson Mark Tanton said it was possible for renewable energy to comprise 25% of the country’s electricity mix.

"We say there is already 6000MW of installed (wind) capacity ready to be commissioned right now, but we’d like to see sanity prevail when looking at the true costs of the various technologies," he said.

Wind power has been criticised for being too expensive and inconsistent. But as technologies for wind and solar are expected to improve and fossil fuel prices rise sharply, the renewable market is expected to boom. Eskom’s reserve margin on installed capacity is dangerously below 10% and shrinking.

Chris Yelland, publisher of EE Publishers, said the fact that the IRP task team comprised moneyed industry players such as Eskom, Xstrata, Anglo American, Exxaro, Sasol and BHP Billiton was a cause for concern.

He said the absence of consumer groups and a wider industry spectrum would skew the IRP process in favour of certain agendas to the detriment of the rest of society. He praised France for generating more than 80% of its relatively cheap power at nuclear plants – in an infrastructure programme that began 30 years ago.

Ayanda Nyoli, CEO of the Nuclear Industry Association of SA, said nuclear energy could supply 20000MW of power capacity in the next 10 years (from the current 1800 from Koeberg) and provide 70000 direct and indirect jobs.

"While nuclear power plants are more expensive to build, they are cheaper to run as base load power than coal," he said. However, Saliem Fakir, the head of the Living Planet Unit of World Wildlife Fund SA, said the "nuclear renaissance" had worn off.

"We need to look at the cost overruns a bit more closely," he said,

"There are (only) two companies that build the reinforced steel internationally and there may be time delays associated with that."