While global energy planners increasingly turn to progressive sources of renewable energy (RE) to satiate energy demand, South Africa’s department of energy (DoE) appears inexplicably reluctant to enhance the volume of RE in the country’s energy mix.
As the DoE continues the development of the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) – the country’s overarching long-term energy plan – an alarming assertion has been made by Dr Tobias Bischof-Niemz, head of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR’s) Energy Centre.
Bischof-Niemz, who was both a member of the Ministerial Advisory Council on Energy as well as a member of the team that designed the IRP 2010/2013 for Eskom, appears puzzled at the department’s apparent reluctance to lift seemingly superfluous limits to the volume of RE that can be added to the national energy mix on an annual basis.
Furthermore, the department seems to be overlooking substantive evidence demonstrating that increasing the amount of RE into the long-term energy plan will significantly drive down energy development and running costs.
Such a claim, made by the head of a state-funded research and technological innovation body intricately involved in the design of the IRP, raises critical questions about government’s energy policy motivations.
Addressing the civil society cohort during a workshop at public interest law firm Section27 last month, Bischof-Niemz explained that the IRP updated base case, released in November last year, includes a self-imposed limitation on the amount of wind and solar photovoltaic- (PV-) generated energy that can be built and added to the grid on a yearly basis.
The annual build constraints for new capacity for wind are set at 1 600 megawatt (MW) and solar PV at 1?000MW, while no other technology is limited.
“There is no explanation as to why there is a limit and why the limit decreases in relative terms. There is no policy decision that imposes limits, which were put in place by the IRP design team that sits in the DoE. We just can’t figure out why the limit is in place,” he opines.
The South African Renewable Energy Council (Sarec) adds that the DoE has given “no single rational explanation” for the constraint on the allocation of solar and wind technologies.
Firing back, the DoE has accused critics of its IRP base case of premature disapproval.
Speaking to finweek, DoE chief director of electricity Jacob Mbele says the plan is currently in its consultative and design phase, and is far from being finalised.
According to an irate Mbele, the constraints on RE were first introduced in the original draft IRP in 2010. At the time, while RE penetration was accelerating on a global scale, it remained a relatively unutilised energy source in SA.
During a later policy adjustment phase, a decision was taken to maintain the limitations in order to allow SA to meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.
While adamant that these maximum RE thresholds may, during later iterations of the plan, be lifted, Mbele fails to adequately clarify why they were retained in the first place.
The 2016 draft IRP currently in the public domain is based on several assumptions that may be amended following the ongoing public consultation phase, which ends on 31 March, he holds.
“If you go through this process without consultation, and you only consult with the final product, it causes confusion, because when you want to discuss the plan, people are still questioning the assumptions that led to the plan.
“We have not made a decision [on renewables]. The base case is one of the scenarios. There has not been a decision to maintain the limitations. We’ve maintained them in the  base case because they were there in 2010. So we’re not saying that it’s right [the plan]. At this point, it’s not about the correctness of the plan, but the ability of the plan to adapt and that your assumptions can change. We cannot argue about the plan when there is no plan on table,” he contends.
The department plans to update the draft IRP base case with inputs from the consultation phase and expects to deliver a balanced scenario IRP plan by the end of August.
The capacity question
While resolute that the RE limitations may yet be lifted, Mbele maintains the DoE and Eskom’s long-held position that grid capacity constraints are hampering the connection of renewables to the grid and that RE remains inherently unreliable and unstable.
“We have to look at issues of grid constraints which are preventing good power projects from coming through. A simple transmission line can take between five and 10 years to develop, because of the paperwork, and land owners saying ‘not in my backyard’, which forces us into a process of land expropriation,” Mbele says.
But Bischof-Niemz said that there was no scientific study in place to substantiate government’s claim of grid constraints or that renewables were an unreliable source of energy, particularly for SA’s industrial base.
The nuclear factor
So what could government’s motivation be for apparently snubbing RE in favour of more traditional, costlier and less environmentally friendly energy sources? Sarec believes the answer lies in the DoE’s highly-criticised nuclear energy programme.
“Sarec’s position is that the only reason that an artificial constraint has been placed on renewable energy is to allow for the related artificial insertion of 20GW of nuclear power. There is no policy framework that supports the RE limit and it is due instead to a political intervention on what is supposed to be a purely techno-economic process,” it asserts.
Eskom’s reticence over renewables contrasts with its enthusiasm to find bidders for nuclear plants, which some claim has a nefarious political undertone, driven by President Jacob Zuma.
Sarec further suggests that a desire by Eskom to maintain its hegemony over the South African electricity supply industry and renewable energy could be behind government’s apparent distaste for RE.
“The least-cost unconstrained scenario of the IRP would see [Eskom’s] share of the South African generation fleet fall to 6% by 2050, whereas the DoE’s proposed base case scenario allows it to maintain 61% ownership,” it states.
This is a shortened version of the cover story that originally appeared in the 16 February edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.