Power-hungry South Africa: coal, gas or nuclear?

18 March 2014

Although South Africa’s long-term energy plans look solid, with coal, nuclear, gas and renewables all viable options, none will prevent potentially crippling power crunches in future unless there’s a decision soon on when and how to add capacity.

ANC government’s decision not to build new plants when asked by the utility to do so in 1998 meant it paid dearly in 2008 when the grid nearly collapsed, with power cuts that cost the economy billions of rand.

Medupi and Kusile, massive coal-fired outfits with a combined capacity of about 9 500 MW, are still several years away from completion, and in the interim Eskom will be battling to keep the lights on, nursing ageing generating units and hoping breakdowns do not reduce reserve margins to critical levels.

The utility has declared four power “emergencies” since November and earlier this month imposed rolling blackouts, for the first time in six years. “And,” Eskom says: “the worst is not over.”

Although South Africa’s infrastructure is generally the envy of Africa, at the moment nearly a quarter of its power generation capacity is out of action, mainly for maintenance.

In its 20-year Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), running up to 2030, the government says coal, nuclear, hydro, shale gas and renewable energy are all options to beef up power supply.

“We are working around the clock to arrive at decisions quickly,” Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba said.

Eskom generates most of its electricity from coal-fired plants but also has one nuclear plant, gas turbines, hydro-electric and wind facilities.

To diversify its energy sources and reduce its reliance on coal plants, South Africa started three years ago to procure renewable power from independent producers.

To date, the government has signed off on 64 renewable energy projects with a combined capacity of 3,850 MW. To date 19 projects have been connected to the grid.

“The industry is by far not deregulated enough. We need to have more participants in base-load generation in South Africa,” said Cornelis van der Waal, an energy analyst at consultancy Frost & Sullivan.

By: Reuters


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