Energy planning in South Africa should take into account energy security and energy equity, highlighted energy consultancy NuEnergy Developments MD Des Muller in his address to the National Nuclear Regulator's second Nuclear Information Conference on Wednesday. Energy security was important while lack of energy equity was a major problem in Africa. Still in South Africa, some 20% of the population did not have access to electricity, although this was being worked on.
He pointed out that, only a few years ago, South Africa had suffered from severe power cuts, known as load-shedding, due to inadequate electricity production by national power utility Eskom. "We've taken a decade to get out of it [load-shedding]. Now we're talking about excess electricity again!" he said. "We don't want to go from one [energy] crisis to another crisis."
He argued that predictions that South Africa would be a low growth economy are nonsense. The country had the potential to be a high growth economy. That would have consequences for the country's future electricity production.
Moreover, it could not be said that South Africa had excess electricity when Southern Africa had a lot of poverty, including energy poverty. The power grids of 12 Southern African countries were interconnected and trading in electricity already went on in the region, with payments in US dollars.
There was a need to plan for the future. Power plants had to be safe, reliable, clean and provide affordable power. South Africa's current coal-fired power plant fleet was ageing. Getting the future balance of affordability and energy security right would require the use of more than one type of energy.
Moreover, when choosing a future energy mix, other benefits had to be considered as well. One such potential side benefit would be desalination. Another would be minimizing grid losses, resulting from the transmission of electricity over long distances from the power plants in the interior to consumers on the coast. A further benefit would be the stability of the grid. "That talks to the value baseload [power generation] brings to the grid," he observed.
Nor must new sources of electrical demand be forgotten. Electric vehicles, in particular, would be an additional load on the grid. How would South Africa deal with this?
And then there is the matter of the climate. He noted that, worldwide, 66% of the electricity actually produced (as distinct from installed capacity) came from thermal power plants, with nuclear, hydroelectricity and renewable energy together accounting for 33%. He also noted that some climate scientists had suggested that, by mid-century, the global energy mix should be 33% thermal, 33% nuclear, and 33% renewables and hydroelectricity.
Regarding nuclear power locally, Muller pointed out that the Koeberg nuclear power plant had been very important for the development of Cape Town. It had provided the energy which had allowed the city to expand. "The technology [nuclear] is here," he affirmed. "South Africa can help other African countries moving into the nuclear space."
For South Africa's own energy mix, he also forecast a 33%/33%/33% mix by 2050. One of these thirds would still be thermal power, but it should be a lot cleaner than today, using gas, although there would still be some coal-fired generation. "33% hydro and renewables is a very big ask," he affirmed. "It is a massive ask." Hydroelectricity would probably have to be imported from neighbouring countries. "We've also got to look at 33% nuclear in the mix. We also need to exploit some of the small grid, smart grid, technologies." There was a need to diversify away from the national grid. But neither the national grid nor the regional power pool would disappear. And there was a need for both public and private participation in the power sector.