Johannesburg -South Africa would procure several thousand megawatts of new nuclear power generation capacity, new Energy Minister David Mahlobo declared this week.
He would not say exactly how much, but seemingly intends for nuclear to be 20% of the local power supply by 2030.
This proportion had earlier delivered the old target of 9 600 megawatts, but now the demand forecasts have fallen, forcing the nuclear component to fall proportionally, he explained.
New forecasts indicate Mahlobo’s plan will deliver 6 200MW of nuclear by 2030, according to preliminary calculations by Tobias Bischof-Niemz, a leading South African expert on energy modelling who ran the energy centre at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.
This will result in anything between R25 billion and R50 billion more being spent per year on power in South Africa by 2030 – compared with what would happen under a “least cost” strategy involving no new nuclear and no new coal stations, said Bischof-Niemz.
The wide range is due to the question mark over the cost of nuclear.
Having 20% of power come from nuclear was always the plan and was never really up for consultation, Mahlobo said this week.
On Tuesday, he subjected nongovernmental organisations to a two-hour lecture, and then proceeded to give journalists almost the same lecture at a bizarre and hastily arranged energy indaba on Thursday.
This apparent repudiation of South Africa’s existing system for planning energy investments was presented as obvious and uncontested.
Everyone else just misunderstood South Africa’s energy policy, said the former security minister who inherited the energy portfolio after President Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet reshuffle last month.
Mahlobo used the indaba to quietly announce that the long-awaited Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) had already been approved by Cabinet and that there would be no more consultations on it.
This was not said in the main plenary attended by more than 700 people, but told to journalists at a press conference afterwards that was mostly attended by Mahlobo’s staff, who applauded his answers to the journalists’ questions.
According to the minister, the IRP is “not a policy” and the government’s energy policy simply boils down to a mix of all resources, which necessarily includes nuclear.
Many delegates to the indaba this week did not know exactly why they were there, but hoped the president or Mahlobo would make a meaningful announcement.
The official programme was a strange mishmash of presentations and then parallel “commissions” to separately discuss coal, renewable energy, gas, liquid fuels and nuclear.
In the commission on renewable energy, the room was awkwardly silent when moderator Nelisiwe Magubane started the session by instructing everyone that “this is not a platform to discuss the IRP”.
There were chuckles and sighs in the room.
When she asked why no one had any questions, there were murmurs: “They’re all about the IRP!”
When a delegate pointed out that the IRP was central to the discussion, Magubane said that it could not be discussed because “the minister had a meeting with civil society and indicated this is not part of the consultation on the IRP”.
At this point, no one in the room knew that Cabinet had already approved the IRP and precluded any further consultations anyway.
Cabinet spokesperson Phumla Williams confirmed this, and said it was not mentioned in the normal Cabinet statement issued this week because it was felt that Mahlobo should announce it.
The news turns the long battle around energy policy on its head and will almost certainly lead to a new court challenge from environmental groups, which earlier this year succeeded in getting the old decision to procure 9 600MW of nuclear scrapped in court.
Up to now, the expectation had been that a new draft IRP would be produced and offer various options and scenarios for future power investments, followed by extensive public consultations.
Not so, said Mahlobo.
According to the minister, the original IRP of 2010 is still in effect and the apportionment of power sources set in 2010 remains the target.
All that will have changed from the original 2010 IRP is the overall forecast of national power demand, Mahlobo said.
This has two major effects – it demotes renewables back down to 9% of the mix and promotes nuclear back up to 20%.
Modelling done early this year with the latest technology costs created a “least cost” outcome that excludes nuclear and massively scales up renewables, which have become far cheaper in recent years.
The IRP is meant to be an objective mechanism for planning new power investments.
Once an IRP is accepted, it becomes the basis of ministerial determinations to procure energy.
The country’s renewable energy programme is based on a determination that is in turn based on the previous IRP.
The infamous process to procure 9 600MW of new nuclear was also based on a determination based on the previous IRP.
A draft IRP released late last year was pilloried for setting arbitrary limits on renewables, which had the effect of putting nuclear back into the energy mix the mathematical model proposes.
The department of energy has since refused to provide documentation on how it modelled the cost of nuclear or to justify its limits on renewables, fuelling speculation that the IRP was being rigged to facilitate a nuclear deal.
“Nuclear, we are going to do it,” Mahlobo told journalists.
According to the minister, there will be new nuclear plants in the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape.
Mahlobo also casually announced that the long impasse between Eskom and 27 stalled private power projects waiting for their power purchase agreements had been resolved.
Shortly before she was reshuffled, Mahlobo’s predecessor, Mmamoloko Kubayi, told the private power developers that they had to lower their previously agreed tariffs to 77c/kWh.
Mahlobo would not divulge whether this was still a condition, but indicated the deals would finally get signed next week.
Eskom spokesperson Khulu Phasiwe told City Press that this matter concerned the department and the developers of the renewable projects. Eskom was waiting for an announcement like everyone else, he said on Friday.
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