De Ruyter: Mpumalanga's solar, wind resources good enough for renewables rollout

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Andrede Ruyter, chief executive of state-owned power utility Eskom. Picture: Sumaya Hisham/Reuters
Andrede Ruyter, chief executive of state-owned power utility Eskom. Picture: Sumaya Hisham/Reuters
  • Eskom will retire 22GW of its coal-fired plants by 2035, reducing emissions by 62%, says Eskom CEO André de Ruyter.
  • There is an opportunity to roll out renewables in Mpumalanga, which has good solar and wind resources and can ensure easy access to the grid.
  • Expanding the transmission network will be costly, which is why it is essential to enable access to the existing infrastructure by repurposing old power stations, says De Ruyter.

Repurposing old coal-fired plants in Mpumalanga with renewables can help solve the problem of grid access in the short term while also ensuring that the energy transition is just, says Eskom CEO André de Ruyter.

De Ruyter on Tuesday delivered the keynote address at the virtual launch of the documentary, Voices from under a dark cloud: Towards a Just Transition in the coalfields of South Africa. The 30-minute documentary highlights the challenges and opportunities that come with the phasing out of coal in Mpumalanga, particularly the eMalahleni and Steve Tshwete municipalities.

The documentary was produced by a consortium - Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS), the National Labour and Economic Development Institute, groundWork and Peta Wolpe, the managing director of Sustainability Energy Africa. Joelle Chesselet directed the documentary.

In his address, De Ruyter highlighted Eskom's plans to retire its ageing coal fleet – 11GW will go offline by 2030, and another 11GW will be decommissioned by 2035. He explained that acquiring technologies to ensure these plants can meet Minimum Emissions Standards will require a significant investment of R300 billion. But retiring nearly half (47%) of the coal-fired capacity can reduce carbon emissions by 62%. This will make a "major contribution" to the decarbonisation of the South African economy, De Ruyter said.

New generation capacity will be needed to replace these plants. According to Eskom's calculations, South Africa needs to create between 50GW and 60GW of new generation capacity over the same period that the coal plants are decommissioned. This also has to be coupled with the expansion of the transmission grid by 8 000km. The capacity of the distribution grid must also be strengthened. Overall, the electricity supply industry needs new investment of R1.2 trillion by 2035.

READ | SA's shift from coal is unavoidable and imminent - make a plan to protect workers, report warns

De Ruyter noted that the best wind and solar resources are located on the southwestern parts of the country or the Northern Cape. But the transmission grid is limited. Expanding this infrastructure will take about a decade, but South Africa needs more grid access sooner.

This is why it is so important to use the existing grid capacity for renewables in Mpumalanga, as coal-fired power stations in the province are shut down. "… Given the time pressure to accelerate the introduction of grid access, Mpumalanga is a natural candidate for exactly that," said De Ruyter.

He added that new research shows that the province has good solar and wind resources. They might not be as good as those in the Northern Cape, but they are far better than those available in Europe. Eskom is looking to roll out 100MW of solar PV and 70MW of wind capacity at Komati, while the coal-fired plant will be decommissioned at the end of September.

De Ruyter said this initiative would also enable a just energy transition – the area has significant human capital that can be skilled and trained to work with renewables.

Eskom is working with the South African Renewable Energy Technology Centre, part of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, to establish a training centre.

"We want to learn from them how to provide accredited training as wind and [solar] PV technicians. We are told by industry associations, there is a significant need for skilled technicians," said De Ruyter.

Eskom is also setting up a micro-grid manufacturing facility, these repurpose old shipping containers and can be transported by truck to remote areas where electricity is needed, but there is no grid access.

De Ruyter said there is interest from development organisations to get these mini-grids to power schools and clinics in remote areas. Eskom plans to incubate entrepreneurs interested in developing these manufacturing and assembly lines and provide them with technical support.

COP president Alok Sharma is currently in South Africa engaging with government ministers, communities and business leaders involved in the country's just energy transition. This is off the back of the Just Energy Transition Partnership announced at COP26 last year where $8.5 billion was pledged by the UK, US, France, Germany and the EU to assist South Africa's plans to decarbonise the economy. Sharma also visited the Komati power station and met with coal miners and community leaders.

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