Guest Column

Energy conundrum? What energy conundrum?

2016-12-29 08:01

It would seem that we have somehow taken a winner takes all mentality when it comes to discussing the most pertinent issues facing our country of late. This becomes glaringly evident when it comes to the emotionally charged issue of electricity generation and the allure of renewable energy.

Debates about out energy security tend to revolve around trumpeting the positives of green energy and entering into emotionally charged diatribes about carbon based generation methods. What we lose out on is the opportunity to present each other with a much more balanced view of both the positives and challenges of each method so that we can be armed with a holistic insight of the issues at hand and thus be able to contribute to the discourse productively.

The positives of renewable energy

Renewable energy is abundant in South Africa as both solar and wind resources can compete with most places anywhere in the world. Generally speaking, there is much more FDI interest in renewables than carbon based power generation as proven with South Africa’s IPPP programme and Eskom’s struggles to raise the cash for Medupi and Kusile power stations.  

The decentralised nature of green energy allows greater flexibility in where generation is placed around the country. It has also not been lost that green energy has decreased the barriers to entry into the market and as such has the potential of breaking the Eskom monopoly, diversifying our energy mix, with the hope of a more resilient energy supply. The big positive about renewable energy is that, even though some of the technology is relatively unproven, costs are decreasing year on year as the scale grows. Ultimately, this means the prices charged per kilowatt/hour for each new generation of power stations will decrease, creating an opportunity for Africans to industrialise without the devastating environmental denegation as seen with our Western, and more recently, Asian counterparts.

The challenges

That being said, there are some glaring challenges that renewables face in South Africa today. These challenges have to do with both the shortcomings of the technology in its current state and indirect consequences that are particularly weighty for a developing country like ours.

The key challenge with green energy is having the energy you need at the time that you need it. The sun and wind are not exactly always co-operative and don’t always coincide our peak electricity demand. The question of energy storage generated during low-demand periods to be used during peak is the key to the general acceptance of this generation method in the long-term. There are some exciting developments in the wind power field (CSIR models for aggregation of output from several wind farms to negate the effects of power intermittency) that allows more effective demand management. On the solar side of things, concentrated solar plants with storage (The Redstone CSP project is in the planning stages in the Northern Cape) and can potentially produce electricity for up to 12 hours after the sun has gone down but none are at the gigawatt size that would allow them to throw the gauntlet to coal power stations. Notwithstanding the above developments, those charged with the future of countries and the protection of economies are, quite reasonably, apprehensive to be the first to make the jump into the unknown and replace their proven and reliable base load power from coal with what is new, untested technology.

Additionally, other challenges with green energy involve the relatively low number of construction jobs and minimal local industrial input relative to their carbon based counterparts. The long-term job opportunities in running and maintaining these plants are also very limited.  One last and notable negative is the amount of land one has to dedicate to green energy (often competing with arable and legally contested land) when you want to get to the gigawatt scale needed to replace fossil fuel generated base load power.

The negatives of coal fired power

We all, undoubtedly, are well aware of the environmental damage that coal fired power stations have besides their direct contribution to global warming. We have been told how destructive the mining of unsustainable coal deposits is and the massive initial cost and long-term maintenance and feedstock costs that these plants require. We have been told how water-intensive these plants are, especially in light of our own water scarcity as a country. The general argument is that we must cut our losses and dump the technology all together; that this is so simple and clear that anyone who dissents is surely blind to the realities of climate change. Is it all that bad? Is it all so negative?

The positives

What we are not talking about are the developments that are happening in the coal industry and the merits of “clean coal’’ technology objectives. What we don’t talk about is the promise that “desulphurisation” and “carbon capture” for coal fired power stations means. We do not talk about the 40% drop in overall emissions that the new crop of coal-fired plants like Kusile and Medupi will achieve through the use of super-critical steam generators and future improvements to this technology. We overlook the potential of dry-cooling as a means to decrease water use by these power stations.

We pay lip service to the fact that the construction of a coal fired power station can be an integral part of the growth trajectory of our developing nation due to the length of the construction period, the local content in their supply chain, which is crucial for countries with high unemployment. We miss the potential of continuing our exploitation of our abundant coal reserves as a key long-term employment opportunity. 

Most importantly, we talk about diversifying the power mix, yet make impassioned calls to removing the most reliable, scalable contributor at this time. The lead-in times for a coal fired power station are well over a decade and when one looks at the uncertainty as to whether renewables will come to the party by the time we actually need the power in the future, pulling the trigger now and building coal plants (our very last, I promise) is probably the best way to hedge our bets.

Good energy mix the best scenario

One of the biggest challenges we have is that, notwithstanding the different points of view, we need to have the cleanest energy with, crucially, the least negative impact on the environment. What we need is to engage on is the simple fact that base-load power might become less and less crucial as greener technologies come to the fore in the coming decades. This should not mean that we must ignore our responsibilities today and not play the hand that has been dealt to us. Similarly, we have a duty to support programmes like the IPPP in our country as it introduces technologies that, with time, can become localised, and make a much better contribution to our country than they do now. This will put the country in a better position to exploit green technology when the time comes to kick our carbon habit.

Ultimately, the good energy mix that we are developing at the moment is the best scenario possible as both technologies have developed a symbiotic relationship which in turn validates both of them right now. 

* Inga Mbambisa is part of News24's video team.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    nuclear  |  renewable energy
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