More coal or no coal: public weighs in on SA's energy plan

UCT’s Energy Research Centre says if South Africa is serious about keeping climate change below 1.5°C it must not add any new coal to the country’s electricity sector.

In the second day of public hearings on the draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), Harald Winkler from the centre told the Energy Portfolio Committee on Wednesday that in order to avoid the worst of global climate change, the world was moving away from coal to a situation where there was zero coal by 2050.

“So we’re heading into a future where if you don’t want to suffer the impacts of climate change, there must be a transition away from coal.”

The energy sector was changing very rapidly, he said. Fifteen years ago the cost of renewable energy was more than that of coal, but now renewables were cheaper than coal.

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy was the cheapest technology for electricity generation, which was acknowledged in the draft IRP, yet the IRP nevertheless imposed a constraint on the amount of renewables that could be built.

Winkler said there needed to be a managed decline in the coal sector to protect the livelihoods and communities in coal areas.

He questioned why the draft IRP had included power from the Inga hydro power project in the DRC, adding that it offered no analytical basis as to why this was included. There was also nothing in the draft IRP that explained how the transmission lines from the DRC would be secured.

More Coal

In contrast, General Electric Steam Power Systems called for more coal in the future electricity mix. General Electric supplies 80% of Eskom’s steam turbines and 30% of its boilers in the utility’s coal power stations.

The company said in 2014 the government had allocated 2500MW to coal projects in the Independent Power Producers’ Programme. Of this 900MW had been allocated, which left a balance of 1600MW. However, the IRP made allowances for only 1000MW of new coal projects. 

The removal of 1600MW from the draft IRP would be a “big blow to investor confidence and aspiring new black entrants” the company said. It called for the 1600MW of coal to be brought back into the IRP, and advocated the use of clean technology.

GE said the coal sector employed 80 000 people on the mines and double in downstream sectors.

Mind the gap

Business Unity South Africa (Busa) said the IRP had a gap in proposed renewable energy generation between 2022 and 2024 when no new generation was to be built. This gap would be detrimental to the industry as experience had shown that a “stop-start” approach to projects had a negative impact on investment.

Referring to the IRP's inclusion of 1000MW of new coal from Independent Power Producers, Busa said it was concerned that legal challenges to these two proposed plants may delay or halt the projects. These facts should be modelled into the IRP. It was also concerned that the two projects would add to already high electricity tariffs.

Busa believed the IRP had underestimated the amount of embedded electricity generation there already was, adding that there was no rational basis for the IRP allocating only 200MW a year for embedded electricity generation.

The indication from Busa’s members was that there was already in excess of 200MW of embedded generation in South Africa.

Eskom and electricity demand

The Energy Intensive Users Group (EIUG) told MPs it was concerned about Eskom’s ability to meet electricity demand cost effectively in the next five years.

Eskom was already often using the expensive emergency reserves in order to meet daily demands and avoid load shedding.

The EIUG said the draft IRP’s use of a medium plant performance forecast for Eskom was unrealistic. It should be changed to reflect a lower plant performance to reflect the current reality.

The EIUG said it supported that the country must move to a lower-carbon future and said going forward, any coal should incorporate clean technologies.

Moving away from coal should be done in a manner and time-frame that protected the competitiveness of the economy.

* This article was updated at 13:10 on Friday 19 October to clarify a statement by Busa around the IRP.  

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