‘Shoddy’: Experts decry South Africa’s new blueprint for energy

‘I can’t stand here and tell the country that there will be no load shedding going into the future,” said Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa during an update on South Africa’s energy action plan on Tuesday, 9 January.

Ramokgopa’s comments mirror what the latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), gazetted on 4 January by Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, emphasised: South Africa’s power supply will be constrained for the next six years due to an “electricity supply gap”, despite efforts to add new supply to the grid.

The long-awaited IRP  predicts how much power the country will need in the coming decades and runs a least-cost scenario to determine what combination of energy will most economically deliver energy security. 

However, the draft IRP 2023 — open for public comments until 23 February — does not seem to indicate a security of energy.

Energy expert Professor Anton Eberhard, from UCT’s Power Future Labs, said on X that the IRP 2023 “is an admission of failure around eliminating load-shedding and it fails to fulfil its declared purpose of ensuring electricity security while minimising environmental impacts and the cost of supply”.

The plan has two timelines. From now until 2030, it focuses on addressing existing projects, those in the pipeline and what the system requires to close the supply gap. From 2031 to 2050, it focuses on six long-term electricity pathways to guide policies.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Government’s Integrated Resource Plan acknowledges rolling blackouts will be with SA for years

Compared to the 2019 IRP, this plan has ramped up gas procurement, delayed the decommissioning of coal plants and reduced the procurement of renewables.

More gas, fewer renewables

In South Africa, wind and solar comprise just 5% of the electricity produced, according to the International Energy Agency. This is far below the main player, coal, which contributes more than 80% of the electricity generated.

According to the new plan, renewable energy (solar, wind and hydro) will go from 5% to only 22% of the energy mix by 2030. This is below the 33% the IRP 2019 had planned.

“That’s a fraction of what was in the 2019 IRP, and a tiny fraction of what Eskom itself and its modelling projected, which is 50,000 to 60,000MW,” Eberhard said on CapeTalk.

When asked in a media briefing why there were fewer renewables in this plan, the director-general of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), Jacob Mbele, said it was in part due to the reduction of energy demand since the last IRP,  the delay in shutting down plants and private sector projects in the pipeline.

“So, if demand is down, you expect obviously, the quantum would amount to less and that’s not just for renewable, but the overall system requirements,” said Mbele.

The new IRP proposes the procurement of six gigawatts (GW) of new gas-to-power plants, an increase from the 3GW limit in the 2019 IRP.

South Africa energy

Director-general of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy Jacob Mbele. (Photo: @UNDPSouth Africa / X, formerly Twitter)

According to estimates by Tobias Bischof-Niemz, who established and led the Energy Centre at the CSIR and is CEO of renewable energy company Enertag, this means gas would make up 28% of South Africa’s energy mix by 2030. Coal would remain the biggest provider, at around 44% of the energy mix.

The conservation organisation WWF SA said on Tuesday that making such a case for a fossil-fuel-heavy electricity generation system would leave the South African economy facing an uncompetitive future.

“This is not only a step back for the DMRE in terms of consultation and clarity of work, it is a high-risk pitch for special interests at the cost of the citizens’ futures. We can and must do better,” said James Reeler, senior manager for climate action with WWF South Africa.

In terms of nuclear power, the IRP acknowledges that extending the life of South Africa’s one nuclear power station, Koeberg, beyond 2024 is critical, as it provides 1,860MW of power — about 5% of Eskom’s total generation capacity. 

Delaying the decommissioning of old coal plants

Under the 2019 IRP, 11.3GW of coal power from seven old plants was set to be decommissioned by 2030. But because of energy generation constraints, last year, Eskom revised this plan, delaying the decommissioning.

The new IRP is vague on decommissioning targets and Bheki Nxumalo, Eskom’s group executive for generation, said on Tuesday the cost analysis of delaying decommissioning was still being finalised.

The DMRE acknowledged that delaying the decommissioning schedule would have an impact on compliance with Minimum Emission Standards (MES), which by law are meant to be adhered to.

Robyn Hugo, director of climate change engagement at the shareholder activist organisation Just Share, has told Daily Maverick, “The minimum emission standards, which Sasol and Eskom argue are so onerous, are in fact hopelessly weak and inadequate. The SO2 [sulphur dioxide] MES are some 28 times weaker than China’s, and 10 times weaker than India’s.”

Despite being so weak, these limits aren’t being adhered to. The MES standards that were meant to come into place in 2020 have been postponed to 2025.

‘The cost of pollution’

“The plan, obviously, is always meant to reduce emissions,” said Mbele, explaining that the DMRE was not prescriptive on what the solution should be in terms of the challenge of keeping units on the grid and meeting Minimum Emission Standards.

Hugo noted that the 2023 IRP identified MES compliance as one of the “emerging risks” to be “managed”, and that a “balance will have to be found between energy security, the adverse health impacts of poor air quality and the economic cost associated with these plants shutting down.  

“It is not difficult to imagine that, as always, this ‘balance’ will not favour those worst impacted by the deadly impacts of extremely high levels of air pollution.”  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Our Burning Planet

Environmental Minister Barbara Creecy has appointed a technical panel to advise the DMRE on “practical options” to resolve the issue.

While this report is expected in February, the DMRE’s ​​Sonwabo Damba said that they indicated in the IRP that when the 2020 MES actually comes into place, they would affect existing capacity.

“What we’ve shown is that quite a substantial amount of gigawatts would be stranded, because a lot of these Eskom power stations do not comply [with MES] because they have not been retrofitted with emission abatement technologies,” said Damba on Tuesday.

The DMRE said that if Eskom were to adhere to these MES — without installing emission abatement technology, which is hugely expensive — many Eskom coal plants would have to shut down (not just old ones) meaning South Africa would lose 16,000MW of generation capacity immediately, and 30,000MW by 2025 when the current postponement of the “2020” MES standards lapses.

“And it is our view that there is no point in doing an analysis on that because then you don’t have a system if that happens,” Damba said.

Mbele emphasised, “The cost of that pollution is far less than zero supply of energy to the economy.”

While the cost of losing coal plants to adhere to emissions standards is significant, delaying the plants that were originally meant to be decommissioned has economic as well as health impacts.

Daily Maverick has reported that the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (Crea) found that if the decommissioning of South Africa’s coal plants only begins in 2030 or beyond, it would cause a projected 15,300 excess air pollution-related deaths and economic costs of R345-billion.

The Crea report also found that if the rate of decommissioning in the 2030s and 2040s is not accelerated from current plans, further delays in the decommissioning of other units would increase the health impacts to 32,300 deaths from air pollution and economic costs to R721-billion. 

Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

The ideal energy mix

With experts calling this new IRP “depressing” and  “a shoddy piece of work”, what would the ideal energy mix look like for South Africa?

Hundreds of studies globally have demonstrated the feasibility of cost-effective full energy provision with higher [renewable energy] penetration rates than 95%, using just extant technologies such as batteries, thermal storage, compressed air storage and gravity storage, with horizon technologies such as green hydrogen enabling seasonal backup,” Reeler of WWF SA said.

“The IRP appears to have eschewed most of these for no clear reason.”

UCT’s Energy Systems Research Group (ESRG) modelled possible pathways to net zero CO2 emissions for South Africa by 2050. Their findings, published last year, were: “The most economical pathway to stay within a fair share carbon budget, and ultimately achieve a net zero CO2 target, is large-scale investment in wind and solar PV generation.”

As seen in the graph below, the energy mix that would keep South Africa within a greenhouse gas budget of eight gigatons of CO2 equivalent (cumulative from now until 2050) would consist of a majority of wind and solar PV, with some gas but with nuclear and coal tapering out by 2050.

South Africa energy

New generating capacity added by technology in the net zero pathway with a GHG budget of 8 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent from 2021 to 2050. (Graphic: UCT Energy Systems Research Group)

​​The study acknowledged that while existing coal capacity is still cheaper to run in the short and medium term, the coal capacity is curtailed in response to the greenhouse gases constraint.

Harro von Blottnitz, an engineering professor at UCT and director of the ESRG, said that while their model involved some gas power capacity for net zero futures, these plants would run at fairly low load factors. The ESRG is  finalising an improved version of this net zero study.

Energy expert and engineer Chris Yelland said that the IRP should determine the ideal energy mix, but “the DMRE are deciding [what they want] … and then working backwards”.

Yelland said an energy mix that meets least-cost and socioeconomic objectives would include some legacy coal, nuclear, hydro and diesel for open-cycle gas turbines with a lot more new wind and solar accompanied by better storage and gas for backup and peaking purposes

Eberhard, speaking on Cape Talk: “This plan is looking back, it’s not a forward-looking plan.”

He said there was a stark contrast with other coal-reliant countries, like Australia, which has planned to have 82% renewables in its energy mix by 2030. DM

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