The National Planning Commission (NPC) on Thursday hosted a roundtable discussion on its energy paper, which was released in February.
The discussion covered mainly coal and carbon pricing, the end-state of the electricity industry, nuclear energy, the integration of renewables into the national grid and whether or not the lifespan of existing coal-fired power stations should be extended.
NPC commissioner Jarrad Wright and NPC head of secretariat Tshediso Matona said the energy paper is aimed at assisting the country achieve the transformative goals envisioned in the National Development Plan 2030, while remaining cognisant of the dynamic environment within which the global and domestic energy sector operates.
The NPC aims to assist government in making decisions that are informed by stakeholder engagements to solicit views, advice, critique and endorsement of issues affecting the energy sector.
Attendees at the roundtable included representatives from the departments of Energy, Mineral Resources, Public Enterprises and Science and Technology; the National Treasury; financial service providers such as Standard Bank; energy fund companies; independent power producer organisations; researchers; and economic advisers.
Economic risk consultant Rob Jeffrey pointed out that if South Africa were to shift away from coal-fired power generation, it would have a significant impact on the economy in terms of employment. He stated that clean coal technologies and their cost structures are superior to other technologies.
Department of Science and Technology hydrogen and energy chief director Rebecca Maserumule also advocated for the adoption of clean coal technologies.
An NPC secretariat member rebutted that the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) does consider transitioning away from coal-fired power generation. “Energy transition should be just, but just transition should not be confused with delayed transition. Coal and other fossil fuels add to climate change, which are big considerations for a just energy transition.”
Meanwhile, with regard to an end-state for electricity, the NPC discussed the changing electricity structure necessary to form part of a global economy.
State-owned power utility Eskom energy thought leader Mike Rossouw said electricity planning has always been a battle between choosing between generation technologies, but added that planning should be more open-minded and unbiased towards certain technologies.
Other attendants agreed, saying that, ultimately, government should have an end-state vision that talks to the policy and vice versa. “We are fixated on technology . . . but first we need a vision of what the energy sector should look like and wants to achieve.”
Jeffrey said the end-state vision should focus on economic growth. “We need security of supply at the lowest price with the most efficient technology. To accommodate the estimated extra 16-million people South Africa will have by 2035, the economy needs to grow by 5% [a year], which can only happen with sustainable electricity supply – even if demand is not there at the moment.”
Matona commented that South Africa should always bear in mind its competitiveness within a global network and what investors want, which will enable economic growth.
Moreover, representatives from the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) suggested that South Africa should consider current issues other than future economic growth only, such as that Eskom’s existing coal-fired power stations would, on average, need to be replaced within the next 15 years and that land reform plans are also going to affect energy plans.
Other comments were that government should consider that the country is endowed with some of the best renewable resources – wind and solar – for power generation and that building nuclear plants, instead of renewables, would underplay this potential.
Additionally, opening up investment opportunities with renewables would contribute to employment at megaprojects, exporting energy and growing the economy.
University of the Witwatersrand honorary research fellow Dr Antonie Cilliers added that government should look at the country’s specific geography and what South Africa can offer investors.
Further, various benefits and disadvantages were discussed, with Necsa stating that nuclear energy produces the least amount of carbon emissions, as well as waste, contrary to popular belief.
Stakeholders also mentioned the concern around countering the intermittency of renewables with energy storage, which would be expensive to implement, although operating renewable plants have become cheaper in the last five years.
Renewables also need a lot of space, Jeffrey pointed out, which will have a massive impact on the environment – especially on ecologically sensitive areas.
However, the NPC said climate change was going to affect ecosystems and be the order of the day anyway if sustainable energy resources are not considered and used.
Moreover, stakeholders endorsing gas as a source of power said that gas is a solution to not only supplement renewables during off-times (from sunset, for solar, and when the wind is not blowing), but it could also be a transitional source of energy while either renewable plants or nuclear plants are being built.
The NCP representatives stated that all evidence-based information should be considered rationally, practically and in the best interest of South Africa and its energy users and not the interest of the biggest advocates of specific technologies.
Wright concluded the session by pointing out that the energy paper will be updated with more information after further public engagements in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape in April.