South Africa’s shambolic energy policy

THAT South Africa’s energy policy suffers from incoherence can be seen in the 2010 Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity published by the Department of Energy.  The prevailing attitude fostered by so many self-proclaimed experts and advisers to the ministry, is that renewables should comprise no more than 16 percent, while the rest of the budget plan is given to the usual dirty energy suspects. Nuclear, Coal and Gas all represent substantial vested interests in South Africa’s energy future.

Over the past years South African’s have become accustomed to ministerial pronouncements which treat consumers as nothing more than bonded laborers whose duty it is to service the debt created by a department which continues to fund an enormous and extravagant “base-load” Nuclear programme inherited from the apartheid regime,  another “baseload” Coal Power industry which is one of the world largest suppliers of Greenhouse Gas, as well as a “peak” Open Cycle Cas Turbine industry dependent upon Fossil Fuel which does nothing more than  perpetuate wars in the Middle East.

Public Enterprises minister, Barbara Hogan’s public relations team appears to be working overtime. No sooner had the two departments announced that the failed PBMR programme would be mothballed with a final cost to the taxpayer in the region of R10 billion without one watt ever produced, then Hogan launched into the usual rhetoric about conventional nukes started by Alec Irwin.  Deputy-president Molanthe then took a sight-seeing trip to Korea, courtesy of the nuclear industry while the department glossed over the Koeberg accident  in which 91 workers were contaminated with Cobolt 51, a dangerous radionuclide. Dare one mention the 1996 Pelindaba accident in which several workers lost their lives following exposure to radiation?(Transcripts and audio taken from the Parliamentary Portfolio Hearing into the Nuclear Industry are available here)

The timing of the IRP2010 document should be seen as nothing more than a vain attempt to deflect attention away from the Zuma administration and its shambolic energy policy. That Independent Power Producers will play a vital part in the energy mix is no state secret, but Hogan got tongues wagging when she appeared to make an about turn on cogeneration, announcing that cogeneration was expected to “feature prominently in the second integrated resources plan (IRP2010)”

As if a 16 percent sanity score out of a possible 100 percent for renewables was anything to write home about.  In terms of this so-called revised balanced scenario, the country’s electricity mix would, by 2030, “comprise 48% baseload coal-fired power, 14% baseload nuclear power, 16% renewable energy, 9% peaking open-cycle gas turbine power generation, 6% peaking pump storage generation, 5% mid-merit gas power generation and 2% baseload import hydropower.”

Hogan thus presumes to declare policy as if there is no pressure to conform to any of the Millennium Development Goals, the Kyoto Protocol or the WSSD declaration. Need we remind the minister, that the Earth is facing a catastrophic environmental collapse caused by rapid economic expansion over the past five decades, expansion which at current levels will require us to reproduce the entire resource base of the planet, once  every fifty years? That’s two extra planets for every century extrapolated exponentially. So in century one, we only need two extra planets. Century two requires four extra planets and so on, until we run out of planets.

As the person who introduced the concept of sustainable development to South Africa in several essays and supplements on “Our Common Future”, carried by South Press in the early 1990s, I feel supremely qualified in my attempt to explain the inexplicable. The energy from the Big Bang is still with us. Our dilemma is not that we live in the 21st century, but rather the 20th century along with the industrial age is, in a sense, conjoined.  Another way of looking at it, humanity may have evolved, but the technology created during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries continues to drive our economy. A lot of what we do as a civilisation is thus producing carbon while consuming fossil fuels. Motor vehicles for instance, may be a lot more efficient now than when Henry Ford started mass producing them, but they still, for the most part, utilise the internal combustion engine and oil.

The same may be said of electricity and even farming. As South Africans we suffer not simply from a wealth gap, but a technology gap, which like the digital divide disproportionately effects the developing world. We thus turn to our resource based economy for solutions instead of leap-frogging over more advanced societies.

Our country ends up paying a huge cost in terms of loss of environment and ecosystems. Burning coal is enormously polluting unless mitigation measures are implemented. Since the technology as it stands  is unsustainable, requiring several new planets in the future to keep up with demand, recent announcements of negative carbon technology and carbon sequestering may make coal appear environmentally- friendly but the industry is really only sustainable for a short while .

Nuclear Power on the other hand, is a mirage which appears to offer us a way out of this resource trap while promising all the allure and glamour of the 21st century’s northern economies. Our government is thus eagerly lapping up nuclear-industry attention — receiving lavish gifts in the form of conferences, holidays and intergovernmental deals.  The sad truth is that very little has changed since the first fission reactors were built in the 2oth century. In what can only be described as sheer folly, many Northern countries including South Africa, embraced nuclear power as a showcase of modernity. Splitting the atom brought with it the twin scourges of the atomic bomb and the constant risk of radioactive contamination. Uranium is essentially the asbestos of our age. One has only to listen the anguish of widows and workers affected by the 1996 Pelindaba accident to realise the true cost of this technology in terms of human lives and the lives of workers.

The South African government ended its nuclear bomb programme in 1990, but it has failed to come clean about Pelindaba and its many accidents and now Koeberg (in September, 91 workers were contaminated with Cobolt-58 caused by the decay of Uranium-235).  The department has yet to issue an official apology to the widow of Harold Daniels and several other NECSA workers dying of cancer and radiation burns. What can one expect from a government which tacitly supported the use of depleted uranium in the Gulf War?  The pictures of genetic mutations caused by exposure to depleted uranium are shocking to say the least. More disturbing is the failure of the Zuma administration to fund research into the effects of radioactive emissions from Koeberg which continue to exceed European safety guidelines.

Most radioactive isotopes have half-lives in the region of 30-100 years.  Routine emissions of Strontium-90 and Cesium-137 from Koeberg are cumulative in the environment where the isotopes bioaccumulate up the food chain, effecting humans in the form of lymphoma and carcinoma. Several studies have found elevated risk of childhood cancer 10-5km near a nuclear plant. Isotopes such as tritium,  associated in proximity to nuclear plants for instance, are extremely rare in nature, yet the department continues to deny funding to projects which might investigate and mitigate the effects which the presence of these isotopes and radionuclides may have on our food supply.

Is it any wonder that the entire industry has had to be exempted from strict liability by the National Nuclear Regulator, since the insurance industry refuses to cover nuclear accidents?

IRP2010 continues to propogandise the prevalent wisdom in the department that renewables can “never replace baseload electricity sources”. The image of Nuclear, Coal and Gas being the three main sources of electricity is bolstered by a steady public relations output from industry.  The SABC stubbornly refuses to host open debate on nuclear energy and carries a perennial flow of soundbytes attacking environmentalists for advocating Wind and Solar energy, since “clearly such technologies cannot replace the base-load”.  This is chicanery at its worst,  even by Hogan’s standards, since the single-issue debate ignores cogeneration and several other promising technologies.

Base-load Ocean Tidal

An abundant source of kinetic energy, tidal projects have been implemented in many parts of the world. South Africa’s enormous coast line could be far better used, than providing cooling for nuclear plants.

Peak-load Biogas from Waste

A technology which literally cleans two problems at once. Human waste is an enormous contributor to aquifer pollution. Channeling some of the muck to powerplants able to produce gas, and gas into electricity produces the kind of peak load provided by Open Cycle Gas Turbines.

Base-load Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Several co-generation projects make hydrogen fuel cells one of the most promising clean technologies in the world. Heat, which is the byproduct of the fuel cell process which breaks down hydrogen into its constituent parts, water and oxygen, is able to heat homes, supplying hot water as well as cooling.

Base-load Geothermal

Believe it or not, South Africa is rich in geothermal resources. One has only to look at Goudini hot water spa to realise the potential beneath the surface of the earth The idea is that a gas such as methane could be pumped below where it quickly heats up by the the Earth’s own energy, expands and returns along another loop to power a turbine.

Base-load Concentrated Solar

Focusing solar power to heat a salt fluid which in turn drives a turbine is advance technology which is being used in several parts of the world including Israel.

  1. Public Input for the second phase of the plan is still open

  2. I followed your link from the Daily Maverick and read your post. It contains several misconceptions and factual errors. As my time is limited, I will only point out a few of the more odious.

    “renewables should comprise no more than 16 percent” – this is dishonest rhetoric. What the IRP says is that renewables should compromise 16% of the energy mix, not “no more than 16 percent.” There is a patent difference between these two statements: “no more than 16 percent” implies that less is acceptable; this is not the statement made by the IRP.

    Base-load wave power – significant R&D is still required. I am only aware of a single experimental wave farm world wide. A reasonable estimate of wave energy is 20kW/m. Assuming 25% efficiency, this means that 480km of coast is required to replace a single “six-pack” coal power station. Likely, much more will be required, since it is always necessary to install significant redundant capacity with renewables, due to the low capacity factor. Does this sound practical to you?

    Base-load Hydrogen Fuel Cells – where do you suppose we get the Hydrogen from? Most Hydrogen is obtained from hydrocarbons (which releases C0x) or electrolysis (which requires electricity). Ignoring all the problems that still need to be solved with fuel cells, Hydrogen is a promising energy storage medium, not a primary energy source! To list it as a possible base load power source illustrates a lack of understanding of this technology.

    Base-load Geothermal – the estimates I have seen state the South Africa does not have sufficient Geothermal resources to contribute anything significant to our power mix. Care to link to any studies that show otherwise?

    Base-load Concentrated Solar – Uncharacteristically, you are correct on this. South Africa has significant solar resources that should be exploited. This is why enormous amounts of funding are being poured into researching this topic. Unfortunately though, CRP is still a significantly way off being cost competitive. Compare the solar refit tariff to the price of electricity for evidence of this.

    The unfortunate fact is, renewables are not ready to completely replace coal and nuclear today, or for the next few decades in all likelihood. No amount of hand waving will change this fact. The correct course of action is to introduce renewables into the energy mix as they become economically viable, all the while running a serious and urgent research effort to reduce their high cost.

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