SA shouldn't be investing in more fossil fuels, but gas needed for transition - Eskom exec

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Eskom is open to cleaner alternatives to natural gas to support the transition to renewables.
Eskom is open to cleaner alternatives to natural gas to support the transition to renewables.
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  • Gas will be required to provide power on a flexible basis as the energy generation system transitions to renewables, but Eskom is open to cleaner alternatives, says an executive.
  • Eskom's Komati coal-fired station already has started micro-grid assembly as well as agriculture, as part of just energy transition plans.
  • An activist says that the just energy transition requires communities to be involved in decision-making.

Gas will be necessary to provide power on a flexible basis as the energy generation system transitions to renewables. But Eskom is open to cleaner alternatives, an executive at the power utility said on Monday. 

Head of Eskom's Just Energy transition Office, Mandy Rambharos, was speaking during a webinar hosted by EE Business Intelligence. The webinar also included input from activist and photographer Daylin Paul, which shared his work documenting the harsh impacts of coal operations on the environment and communities in Mpumalanga.

Commenting on the transition from coal to cleaner energy generation such as renewables, Rambharos noted the need for flexible power to fill the gaps between energy demand and supply from wind or solar power.

In their 2018 book South Africa’s Energy Transition: A Roadmap to a Decarbonised, Low-cost and Job-rich FutureTobias Bischof-Niemz and Terence Creamer argue that the supply of plants dependent on the weather need to be accompanied by flexible power sources to fill supply gaps.

In the case of solar PV and wind turbines, when there is no sunshine or wind, then flexible generation could be provided by natural gas, or battery storage, or hydropower.

A mix of solar, wind and flexible power is still more environmentally beneficial and economic than coal or nuclear projects, according to the authors.

Rambharos said that hydrogen fuel would be "great" to rely on for flexible power, but is not available right now and possibly not for the next ten years. But natural gas is available to use now. Rambharos, however, noted that it is not necessary to invest in natural gas for the next "20 years", but rather a "couple" of years to enable the full transition.

"If there was an alternative to natural gas to enable this, I would be happy. I also do not think we should be investing more in fossil fuels, but right now that is the alternative we have to enable the transition," said Rambharos.

Speaking more broadly on the energy transition, Rambharos said that it is happening at a global scale. Eskom's Just Energy Transition Office specifically aims to deal with the social impacts of decarbonisation or efforts to reduce pollution. Eskom's Komati coal-fired power station, which is being decommissioned, has been put forward as the possible flagship of a just energy transition, as it is to be repurposed for renewable energy technologies, Fin24 previously reported.

Rambharos said that micro-grid assembly as well as agriculture has started at Komati.

Communities affected by the transition will have to be included in decision-making processes, at local and national government levels, stressed Thomas Mnguni, community activist part of nonprofit environmental justice organisation groundwork and co-founder of the Highveld Environmental Justice Network and the Greater Middelburg Residents Association. Mnguni was previously a steelworker in Middelburg, Mpumalanga. The just energy transition should be an opportunity for people to decide how to produce energy and how to consume it, he explained.

As it is, the energy system was designed to provide base-load power to industrialists. Eskom's mandate in the past was to produce energy cheaply, while ignoring the expense to communities, such as through health and environmental impacts.

Mnguni said that whatever technology is used to generate power - the question that must be answered is for whom such energy is being produced. Communities and local government need to play a more active role in the energy system, he explained.

"Whatever technology comes into play - whether solar PV or wind - people need to be involved. That technology should address household energy needs for all the people in the area - then we will not have people living next to a power station without electricity. That is what is critical for us," Mnguni said.

Mnguni said that a just transition also requires more transparency of information flows. "We can't have a just transition if there is still a lot of secrecy. Information needs to be in the public domain," he said.

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