SA should not be dictated to on the pace of its energy transition

A giant shiploader at work on a stockpile at Richards Bay Coal Terminal. File

A giant shiploader at work on a stockpile at Richards Bay Coal Terminal. File

Published Oct 19, 2023


Global coal demand has never been higher than at present, despite the many renewable energy facilities that have been built, and the coal sector still has a bright future.

This is in the context where developed nations have granted South Africa $8.5 billion (R160bn) to help finance its just energy transition to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, a goal that includes a weaning off the reliance on burning coal for power.

“Any funding is welcome, but I don’t think South Africa must be dictated to what technology it should be spent on. Of course, we must invest in solar and wind, but there are other technologies to consider,” South Africa National Energy Development Institute CEO Dr Titus Mathe said at the Energy Africa Conference in Cape Town.

It emerged from other speakers at the conference that the exact terms attached to the $8.5bn funding were still uncertain.

Mathe said in 2022, 35.4% of world power demand was generated by coal, 22.7% by natural gas, 9.2% by nuclear, 7.2% by wind and 4.5% by solar. Some 71% of all the coal-fired power plants were located in the East, most notably China and India, with for example, more than 1 200 of them either in operation or being built in China.

In China, coal power plants that would be able to generate 128.6GW were under construction, while in India coal plants to generate 36.15GW were under construction, while the figure was 11.46GW in Indonesia,

In this context, South Africa’s annual contribution to total annual greenhouse gas emissions from its coal-fired power stations was only 1.17%, he said.

The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy’s Integrated Resource Plan 2019 (IRP 2019), which is being revised and is expected to be released soon, stated that coal needs to be included among a mix of different power generation sources in the future.

He said that given the impact of load shedding on the economy, the IRP 2019 also stated that energy security needed to be protected at all costs.

“Energy security and climate change are two sides to the same coin,” said Mathe.

He said the low-hanging fruit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal stations was energy efficiency improvements, such as, for example applying proactive maintenance at power stations and the use of variable drive motors and pumps.

Another measure to reduce emissions included cleaner coal combustion, using, for example, new technologies, better coal-processing methods and low carbon substitutions.

He cited Japan as an example, where it planned to import green ammonia from countries that could produce it sustainably, and then burn the ammonia in combination with coal at its power stations to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions.

Another way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was through the gasification of coal, which Sasol already does, to produce chemicals and also power, he said.

The use of low temperature combustion technology, and the underground gasification of coal were other technologies to reduce emissions from burning coal that may also have to be considered in future, said Mathe.

Dr Lars Schernikau, energy economist, commodity trader and author, said the International Energy Agency had found that over the past 20 years, 100 million more Africans had no access to electricity, while in Asia over the same period, the number of people without access to electricity was essentially reduced to zero.

He said Africa was projected to need more than 50% more energy by 2050 than it currently produces, due to its population size and growth, the need to industrialise and the fact that people were living longer.

In this context, an energy transition to net zero carbon emissions, without coal, did not appear to be possible, he said.

He said Africa also needed to invest more in mineral exploration because there was a great deal of hype about Africa’s reserves of so-called “critical minerals” such as copper, lithium and cobalt, which would be critical to the global energy transition.

However at present most of these reserves, and whether they were minable, were essentially still “pie in the sky.”

And currently nearly all high-value minerals on the continent were exported to China, where it was processed and then used in products that were then re-exported to Europe and the US, he said.

He said the cost of solar and wind power plants was far more than coal plants when one considered the full carbon cost of manufacturing and establishing wind and solar plants, and the fact that there was no disposal policy for solar panels and other renewable energy equipment, while coal mines have regulated rehabilitation policies.