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South Africa’s energy mix: Long term consequences must be used to determine how available resources measure up against each other

The FF Plus has kept a close eye on the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. What was of particular interest is the divergent responses from government circles to the offer made by prosperous countries to negotiate approximately R106 billion for a "fair transition" to a carbon-neutral energy dispensation in South Africa.

The Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Mr Gwede Mantashe, decided on 8 November to vehemently oppose the idea of suddenly stopping the use of fossil fuels (as if anyone had suggested that). In a statement yesterday, Minister Barbara Creecy, Minister of Environmental Affairs, praised the worldwide commitment to the goal of curbing climate change.

And lastly, Minister Pravin Gordhan said in Parliament yesterday that the government first needs to determine whether the conditions related to the R106 billion aid package are acceptable for South Africa; he also added that the money will not be used to save Eskom.

These varied responses from ministers are against a backdrop of load shedding and an increasing concern about the sustainability and viability of South Africa's power generation capacity.

The fact that coal power stations from the previous dispensation have either passed the lifetime that they were initially designed for or are fast approaching their expiry date has been known for a long time. And the same is true for the fact that the new ones, Kusile and Medupi, are not performing well. Up until now, the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station at Cape Town was a stabilising factor, but that flicker of hope was recently also put out.

In an analysis by the news platform Daily Maverick's specialist unit Our Burning Planet, the Chief Operating Officer of Eskom, Mr Jan Oberholzer, is quoted as saying that he is extremely worried about the loss of experienced and expert staff at Koeberg. The article proceeds to explain how the Nuclear Energy Regulator is affected by serious budget deficits and is unable to monitor and enforce safety at Koeberg.

This brings us to the central problems with nuclear power: The extent of the consequences should something go wrong as well as the short timeframe in which something that went wrong turns into an absolute disaster.

Even when a nuclear power station is shut down, the nuclear waste remains dangerous for centuries to come. As South Africa is currently learning the hard way, the far-off future – when expert knowledge and skills are needed to limit these risks – is not as far off as one may have hoped.

The conclusion: For South Africa, coal is a mixed blessing because the long-term price for cheap energy is, in this case, climate change.

Nuclear power seems promising because the most important ingredient needed is expertise rather than physical resources, however, the long-term problem is that the experts could decide to change jobs, retire or may even pass away – and those experts are not easy to replace. Shale gas in the Karoo is another option, but its long-term consequences may be even more disastrous than the previous two options’.

The disadvantages of renewable power sources are well known and coal disciples will not pass up an opportunity to list them. The most prominent one is unreliability, seeing as the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine.

And that is why yet another government department, this time the Department of Science and Innovation, has set its sights and pinned its hopes on green hydrogen. Hydrogen is green as long as the production of hydrogen gas is powered by renewable energy. Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) has been working on developing this technology for years.

But in the meantime, consumers are fed up with load shedding and may not really care where the power comes from or what the long-term consequences may be.

So, they are increasingly shouldering the responsibility of generating their own power by installing solar systems, with or without battery storage. This applies to small households as well as to large factories and mines, which have decided a long time ago that they cannot sit around and wait for the government to take the lead.

Although this independent approach may be liberating for citizens, it does not exempt the government from its duty to come up with and implement feasible long-term plans. The government must also take the interests of the communities that are dependent on the current dispensation of coal mines and power stations into account.

Ultimately, though, it is the government's duty to protect the interests of future generations – and one would expect the state to do this more effectively than the private sector.

The FF Plus's view is that the government has no other choice but to accept any and all offers aimed at facilitating a "fair transition".

With implementation, the emphasis should be on technology that changes the unreliability of renewable energy into a reliable base load. There is no other choice, irrespective of how abundant coal may be.

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