In parallel to worrying about the electricity supply to get us through this winter, Eskom chief executive Andre de Ruyter and his team have to be planning for a decade ahead as well. Photo: African News Agency (ANA) Archives
In parallel to worrying about the electricity supply to get us through this winter, Eskom chief executive Andre de Ruyter and his team have to be planning for a decade ahead as well. Photo: African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Covid-19 dims demand for electricity as economy goes into low gear

By Kelvin Kemm Time of article published May 18, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG – The fact that the country's electricity supply is on a knife-edge has largely faded from the minds of the population. We have had no urgent calls to cut electricity consumption to help avoid load-shedding, resulting in unintended candle-lit dinners and cold showers.

The international Covid-19 virus scare has not only dominated the news, distracting peoples’ attention, it has also caused an unintentional reduction in electricity consumption, as the economy went into low gear.

But here in the Southern Hemisphere the nights are getting longer and colder, as we head towards Midwinter, a time when the country uses peak power on a cold winter's night. As the sun sets, thousands of people return home from work, turn on household heaters, switch stoves on for dinner and want to jump into a hot baths. The lights come on, children do homework and then want to watch TV. Of course as the sun sets, what also happens is that all solar power disappears. If the wind then falls on those cold still winter's nights, there is no wind power either.

So the nation has to rely on coal and nuclear power, with a bit of hydro, if you want the lights, stove, TV, bath, email,...Or you use the horrendously expensive emergency diesel system.

Over the past year the country has been obsessed with having enough electricity for today, for dinner tonight, for breakfast tomorrow. But we have also heard calls to increase the GDP of the country. Calls to increase the size of the economy, to provide employment and a vision of a future with purpose and meaning, have been loud and clear. A good economy keeps the voters happy and we all know what a downward economy does.

So now we need to look at the electricity situation and say: how will the winter months play out, and what will the economy do when the summer arrives. But that is nowhere near enough. Wise planners also have to say: what will half a dozen years from now look like? If the economy was squeezed because of an inadequate electricity supply last year and we want economic growth next year, how on earth will we persuade the big industrialists to start right now with plans to expand factories, initiate major building projects, plan national infrastructure and more, if they can't be sure that the required electricity will actually be available when they need it.

So in parallel to worrying about the electricity supply to get us through this winter, Eskom chief executive Andre de Ruyter and his team have to be planning for a decade ahead as well. The answer is; nuclear power and coal. The country has to have the vision and the courage to think big and to act big, if we want to be world players of consequence.

South Africa is one of few countries in the world blessed with huge coal deposits. Modern coal-burning technologies ensure high efficiency coal-burning with minimal emissions into the atmosphere. So we must plan to use our coal, but there is a strategic snag. The coal is all clustered in the far Northeast of the country, in northern KZN and Mpumalanga. So that is where the big coal power stations are located. But moving electricity from there to the 'Three Capes' is difficult, Eastern, Western and Northern Cape. The distance from Pretoria to Cape Town is the same as the distance from Rome to London.

That is why historically South Africa built the most southerly nuclear power station in the world near Cape Town, so that the Cape people do not have to plug the Table Mountain Cableway into Mpumalanga.

Now the government energy planners are talking about implementing the nuclear development which is included in the formal government strategic energy plans and which Minister Gwede Mantashe described as a 'no regrets option'. Quite correct.

There is cautious talk of implementing nuclear 'at a pace that the country can afford'. Of course. In 2007 the national nuclear planners had planned to build a large nuclear power station near Port Elizabeth, to push big power into the country from the midpoint between the coal and the Cape Town nuclear. That is still the correct thing to do. The nuclear planners were never so dumb as to plan all that without carefully ensuring that it was all totally affordable. It was. Note too that right now the cheapest electricity in the country is the nuclear power from Koeberg. Koeberg is still good for another 30 years of cheap power production. As Mantashe said; the 'no regrets option.'

The financing had all been correctly worked out in 2007 when the country was ready to start building a large nuclear plant, which would have been running now had we not dropped the baton in 2008.

You are not going to run the mines, electric trains, steel foundries and motor car plants on breezes and sunbeams, no matter what anybody tells you, as they beat their bongo drums around the night fire. Without doubt the sandal brigade must pull their socks up, so too must the gullible bankers who believe them. I have been appalled at the energy nonsense projected by big banks. Some of their publications should feature Mickey Mouse and Goldilocks.

Because South Africa is so large, as large as the whole of Western Europe added together, the nuclear planners were incredibly farsighted 20 years ago and conceived of the South African-designed Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, PBMR. It is a small reactor, only 5 to10% the size of a large coastal nuclear plant. The PBMR was extensively designed, with assemblies built and tested to the point that we were ready to build it in 2008. Then the country tripped over the nuclear baton which had already been dropped.

But the rest of the world sat up with a jolt and realised; 'there is always something new out of Africa.' The ancient Roman philosopher, Pliny the Elder, looked down from a cloud, as he plucked his harp, adjusted his halo, and turned the pages of his 'Historia Naturalis'.

There is now an entire class of small nuclear reactors being developed around the world, generally referred to as SMRs, for Small Modular Reactors. The PBMR design is one of them, still possibly the most advanced. The PBMR is designed to be placed inland, near the mines, near Secunda, and also deep into Africa where other African countries wait as customers.

We need to get on and build the PBMR now. We need the courage to think ahead. We need to build the planned large nuclear reactors near Port Elizabeth, and also to develop the PBMR in parallel. We can do it. Where is the spirit and intelligence which has driven the people of South Africa to achieve what we have already achieved here at the southern tip of Africa?

Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is CEO of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants, a project management company based in Pretoria. He carries out business strategy analysis and project planning in a wide variety of fields for diverse clients.


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