Why wage war for a slice of SA’s electricity pie?

Dr Anthonie Cilliers specialises in nuclear knowledge management systems as programme manager for nuclear engineering at the North-West University. (Supplied)
Dr Anthonie Cilliers specialises in nuclear knowledge management systems as programme manager for nuclear engineering at the North-West University. (Supplied)

There should be no winner, no loser and certainly no war or any industry being crushed when it comes to electricity in South Africa, writes Dr Anthonie Cilliers.

I read with interest the article: “It’s war: Nuclear versus renewables” by Robert J Traydon and Hartmut Winkler: “Renewable energy is being crushed in the coal and nuclear grinder” and I cannot express enough my disappointment in the unfortunate choice of words for the titles of this article, as well as the absolute reversing of roles in expressing the position the energy sector finds itself in.

I have never, in my 15 years working in the energy sector, heard the coal or nuclear industry proponents argue that renewable energy is not required or unnecessary. Yet, I often face debates by the renewable energy sector that the entire country can run on wind, solar and natural gas, that nuclear should not be considered and that coal is dirty and should be phased out. There are a few problems with this claim.

A mix of energy sources

But before I delve into these problems, I need to state categorically – rational South African energy experts all agree that for the benefit of South Africa, its energy security, grid stability and economic growth, and climate goals that a balanced energy mix is required, making use of more and more low carbon energy sources (including wind, solar, nuclear and hydro), whilst we transition the coal industry into a product material based industry (plastics, liquid fuels etc.).

There should be no winner, no loser and certainly no “war” or any industry being “crushed”. I object strongly against this rhetoric as it serves no one.

Now, back to the problems with an “all wind, solar and gas powered” electric grid. As we all know, the sun only shines during the day and the wind only blows at times. The philosophy is that, if you install enough of these sources and distribute them over a great geographic area, you will always have a minimum supply from these sources that should only be supplemented with a small amount of natural gas turbine power during worst case conditions. The CSIR has gone to great lengths to model this in partnership with Fraunhofer IWES (a German wind energy company) to prove how much wind power will be available at minimum wind conditions at any time.

Grid stability at great risk

As you can imagine, this model is rather important as inaccuracies in such a model could put our grid stability at great risk. The data used to develop this model comprised of 3 wind stations, all located in the Western Cape, the variance in times was then extrapolated to cover the whole of South Africa.

While it makes for a very interesting academic study, it also makes for a severely lacking and downright irresponsible situation when used to build a national resource plan on. In addition, a least-cost model has been produced showing that with only wind, solar and natural gas, South Africa can be powered cheaper than with any other energy mix.

Unfortunately, this model does not take the cost of the transmission grid expansion (to reach the far ends of the Northern Cape) into account and assumes the wind turbines and solar plants can be built anywhere in the country. It also uses the current low price (which could change in a heartbeat) of natural gas (of which SA has none) as well as the latest power purchase agreement bid window cost (which is for a small very specific supply) – whilst these agreements allows for an annual inflation increase, the model does not. Again, very interesting reading, but severely lacking, dangerous and inaccurate when used to plan our future electricity expansion plans.

Signing the IPP agreements

Traydon claims that the IPP power purchase agreements are being delayed to support nuclear and coal plans. He also claims that we have over-supply of electricity in the country. This seems rather contradictory to me. The coal plants are being built and commissioned at the moment and would not make any sense to stop that now, nuclear is not being proposed for any earlier than 2026? We do have over-supply, so clearly there is no urgency in signing the power purchase agreements? The proposed integrated resource plan allows for a whole lot of renewable energy as well as the current coal plants under construction, whilst proposing the nuclear power plants to replace the aging coal fleet with additional capacity to allow for economic growth. Even if the power purchase agreements were signed today, it would not (and should not) change the planning of the coal or nuclear plants moving into the future.

Now, I would also like to explain why an energy mix is important to a country like South Africa. Around 80% of South Africa’s electricity load is base-load. This means always using electricity (even at night). This is due to our industrial and mining sectors that are constantly working, this has traditionally been supplied with base load power sources such as coal and nuclear. In the mornings and in the evenings, we have a peak demand mostly due to households using electricity during this time. Electricity is clearly also more valuable during these hours.

Higher tariffs?

Traditionally this power was supplied by peaking stations such as gas turbines of hydro pump-storage schemes. With the addition of wind and solar power to the grid we now have additional supply during the mid-day from solar (lower value time) and intermitted from wind (fingers crossed during a valuable time). These supplies also have first access to the grid as the supply is free when available. In most of these cases it does not provide energy storage. This means during times of low demand, some base-load power stations now need to power down often reducing efficiency and increasing operating costs of these plants. The best way to solve this problem is to offer a higher tariff to suppliers during peak hours, and lower during off-peak hours whilst keeping the average price constant. This would provide an incentive to IPPs to include storage systems in their planning in order to reach the higher tariff times and eliminate the intermittency.

Why wage war?

To have zero carbon emitting sources in the grid is a good thing, without question, but each energy source has a very clear and definite advantage as well as disadvantages. By combining these energy sources, they could complement each other, rather than “waging war”.

Being a nuclear professional and someone who has studied the technology extensively I would not do this opinion piece justice without explaining why I believe nuclear power should form an integral part of a low carbon energy mix.

I will dispense this explanation now. Nuclear power in its current form (Pressurised Water Reactors) is extremely safe and provides stable baseload power with the lowest carbon footprint (and geographical footprint) of all energy sources. According to the World Health Organisation, nuclear power in any form has the lowest fatality rate per GWh produced of any energy source (including Fukushima and Chernobyl). So, we know it is good for producing electricity.

Nuclear power plants produce electricity by producing heat that is converted into electricity through a steam turbine generator system. This means that nuclear power can also be used for other process heat applications. This includes the efficient production of hydrogen (a form of energy storage) as well as to efficiently desalinate water – something South Africa could really use (if used at maximum capacity the 9600MW programme could supply 1% of South Africa’s annual water consumption), all of this as a by-product of the electricity production process.

Burning coal

Hydrogen is also extensively used in the production of synthetic fuels as well as products such as plastics, waxes and all carbon-based materials. This makes the nuclear industry not only an electricity production system, but also a natural partner of the coal sector, as it can assist to reduce carbon emissions in all of its processes, as well as support the transition into using coal for other commodities. Coal will always be extremely valuable and to burn it seems a big waste to me.

Nuclear power should also form a fundamental base-load power source on any low carbon emitting grid, partnering up with renewable sources. We see examples of this worldwide where the lowest carbon emitting countries include a strong nuclear base-load in combination with hydro, solar and wind power (electricitymap.org).

Nuclear waste

Yes, nuclear power has its problems too, we often see cost and schedule over-runs in many of the projects, mostly due to first of a kind implementations in countries. With a fleet approach this would disappear. We have learnt a lot from megaprojects like Medupi and Kusile and those lessons will be implemented. Some people consider the nuclear waste as a problem, I don’t.

A nuclear power plant produces extremely small quantities of spent fuel (Koeberg’s entire spent fuel inventory of more than 30 years would fit on less than a tennis court), it is extremely well managed and very easy to control. Other sectors blow the waste into the environment. Mega projects have shown to be extremely effective in skills transfer and development which in itself is also really needed in South Africa.

A big pie

The electricity pie in South Africa is very big, and I would argue that to reach our full potential we should double it, and double it again. Every South African should be able to have electricity in their homes, to power more than a kettle and a lightbulb. They should be able to power a washing machine at least (story for another day).

There is enough of the pie for every energy source. Waging war over a bigger piece would be irresponsible, downright selfish and certainly not in the interest of the country.

Let’s start working together and get on with it, shall we?

*Dr Anthonie Cilliers specialises in nuclear knowledge management systems as programme manager for nuclear engineering at the North-West University. He is actively involved with enhancing education capabilities in South Africa in line with state and industry objectives. Cilliers is the initiator and national co-ordinator of the academic network, “South African Network for Nuclear Education, Science and Technology” (SAN-NEST). Cilliers was the director of the joint IAEA-South African Nuclear Energy Management School held in Cape Town in October 2016. His work includes adapting nuclear energy systems for changing grid requirements and improving the understanding of these systems.

Brent Crude
All Share
Top 40
Financial 15
Industrial 25
Resource 10
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes morningstar logo
Company Snapshot
Voting Booth
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
I'm not really directly affected
18% - 1512 votes
I am taking a hit, but should be able to recover in the next year
23% - 1970 votes
My finances have been devastated
34% - 2944 votes
It's still too early to know what the full effect will be
25% - 2131 votes