Will there be a steady electricity supply over the next decade?
PRETORIA – Saturday, July 4, was the aphelion point for planet Earth. This is the point at which the Earth was at its furthest distance from the Sun, on its annual elliptical cycle. Also, June 20 was the shortest day of the year, but we are in the depths of winter and cold nights lie ahead.
The Eskom executives are going to be holding thumbs as electricity demand runs high. We need a reliable electricity supply to get us through the next six months. But what about the next six years? Potential large investors will be making decisions on whether they can rely on a steady electricity supply over the next decade. We hear about the need for an electricity mix. Why do we need a mix?
The idea should be to guarantee a continuous, reliable electricity supply, at the least possible cost for consumers. That is the challenge facing Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe. But some people use the phrase “electricity mix” to imply that we have to force some mix based on reducing carbon dioxide, to save the planet. So, a fundamental question is, is industrially produced carbon dioxide leading to climate change? I don’t believe that it is.
To answer this question one has to decide two things: does carbon dioxide induce global warming, and where does the extra carbon dioxide evident since the Crimean War come from?
The science tends to indicate that the observed slight warming, of less than one degree, since the Crimean War is more likely related to the natural magnetic activity of the Sun than to carbon dioxide. Since before the time of Queen Victoria industry produced carbon dioxide, but most appears to come from nature. So it seems that industry is not the guilty party, even if global warming were a problem.
If we put the carbon dioxide question aside for the moment, the electricity mix should consist of those technologies that South Africa knows how to handle and in which we have confidence. This is coal and nuclear power. Recently, Mantashe announced an objective of adding an additional 2 500MW of nuclear power. That is a good objective. As he said, “A no-regrets option.”
We also need to optimise the clean burning of coal. But all the coal is in the far north east of the country, and it requires long power lines to get the power to the three Cape provinces. That is strategically not wise. So decades ago it was decided to build Koeberg nuclear power station near Cape Town, to push electricity into the system from the south, so to speak.
Water-poor South Africa cannot plan for more large hydro schemes, and as romantic as wind and solar appear, their intermittent nature counts against them providing the base load power of the nation.
Other African countries have embarked on a nuclear future, as reality presents itself. So an African market for nuclear technology and nuclear fuel is presenting itself.
US Secretary for Energy Rick Perry has said the US needs energy self-reliance and that it must be “free from the geopolitical turmoil of other nations who seek to use energy as an economic weapon”.
Fundamentally, South Africa needs to aim for a secure energy mix that delivers economic confidence to the country. That means reliance on coal from the north and nuclear from the south. As the Cheshire Cat explained in Alice and Wonderland, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there”.
Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and chief executive of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants, a project management company.