Just how green energy is the new power generation planned for SA and are we ready for what is going to happen?
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By Jaco de la Rouviere
When taking a hard look at what is going on worldwide with “Green Energy”, it does not always add up as expected. At first glance, all seems fine, and that what is being done is in line with the generally accepted, scientifically evaluated, well-conceived, peer-reviewed, integrated development plans.
The first sign of trouble comes, for instance, when one asks what the total CO2 cost of the manufacturing, construction and installation of a wind turbine in South Africa is?
The reality is that there is no ready answer. Quick answers are available for coal-fired power stations in SA: 902g CO2 per kWh of dispatched energy. Deepa Venkateswaran at Bernstein Research reports 27g for solar thermal generation, 44g for PV, 450g for gas and a whopping 1,000g for coal.
Only nuclear at 9g/kWh matches wind power on the Bernstein analysis. Fossil fuels are still the backbone of power generation worldwide. In 2019, fossil fuels generated 62.7 percent of the total global electricity, with South Africa contributing 2.4 percent, Germany 3.0 percent, USA 8.5 percent and China 50 percent. Germany brought its newest 1,100-MW Datteln 4 power plant online on May 30, 2020.
A record-high net efficiency of 47.5 percent was achieved by the RDK Block 8 unit in Germany. This is due to the elevated steam conditions: superheat and preheat steam temperatures of 600/620 °C and steam pressure of up to 275 bar.
Advanced ultra-supercritical power plants (A-USC) are expected to enter operation in the next decade and will approach 50 percent net electricity generation efficiency with the use of advanced metal alloys capable of withstanding steam temperatures and pressures over 700 °C and 350 bar.
The share of advanced supercritical coal power plants is expected to rise in order to meet the ongoing growth in global dispatch-able electricity demand. Supercritical steam cycles paired with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies are going to be integrated into future clean coal power plants.
Ultra-Super Critical coal power plants could achieve even lower CO2 emissions, around 700 g/kWh, and further CO2 emission reductions, down to 100 g/kWh, would be possible with the implementation of post-combustion carbon capture and storage (CCS) for the treatment of flue gases released during fossil fuel combustion.
The report on China’s new coal plants was written by the Helsinki-based research organisation - the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and the US group Global Energy Monitor (GEM) - and released on August 13, 2021, and it came just days after the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published an alarming report that concluded that human-caused climate change is an “unequivocal” reality.
The United Nations’ Secretary-General António Guterres called the IPCC report a “code red for humanity.” China is leading the world in new coal power plants, building more than three times as much new coal power capacity as all other countries in the world combined in 2020.
However, it is not alone in its reliance on coal. China, along with four other countries, for example, India, Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam, account for more than 80% of the coal power stations planned across the world, according to a June report by the think-tank “Carbon Tracker”.
We all inhabit this wonderful, fragile planet, and for this reason, we have established rules to protect our environment, defined by the relevant Act as “the surroundings within which humans exist, and that is made-up of the land, water, and atmosphere of the earth; micro-organisms, plant and animal life; any part or combination of and the interrelationships among and between them; and the physical, chemical, aesthetic and cultural properties and conditions of the foregoing that influences, human health and well-being”.
This governing definition obviously drives the outcome of studies initiated under the SA Environment Protection Act - National Environmental Management Act, 1998 (Act No.107 of 1998), (NEMA) - and priority is given to the list of properties of importance.
I find it somewhat disturbing that the only reference to the economy could possibly be “human well-being” and that this was mentioned as an after-thought. Surely, we need to recognise that our existence predominantly revolves around the economy; we get up in the morning focused on one thing, which is to get to work, earn a living and support our children, build our businesses and ensure our living standards, our health and our retirement.
The relevant Government department might decide to limit emissions in the short term without understanding the real impact, especially the impact on the economy, which will have a profound impact on human well-being. Power generation is still the cornerstone of any economy, and we need to consider its availability and growth, as well as the tariff, as the cornerstone of the future economy.
This oversight has consequences which, in my view, will be dire to our legacy, as demonstrated by our lockdown policies during Covid. At this point, it may be prudent to revisit the origins of the “carbon footprint”.
The original “global warming” research contemplated the “warming potential” of a range of gases. With the lab experiments conducted with a closed volume, it became clear that different gases have significantly different warming potentials. However, a reference was required.
The logical choice was to use one of the gases as a reference. Choosing the gas with the most warming potential would mean that the scale would have two values: 0 and 1, with most gases being 0 - a useless result. The gas in the test sample with the LEAST warming potential was chosen - carbon dioxide - and for this reason, the scale was called “carbon equivalent”, for example, methane has 15 times the warming potential of CO2 and therefore has 15 on the scale.
Unfortunately, the “equivalent” was often omitted, with the result that many have ended up inadvertently killing economies trying to “clean the atmosphere” by pursuing the gas with the LEAST impact taking the eyes off the ball regarding real pollutants.
Also, considering that plants convert CO2 to breathable oxygen and actually need CO2 to exist, and the fact that plants do not require other “warming gases” (water vapour, a notable exception), the question is really - “is carbon a pollutant?” Considering that “life is carbon-based”, can it really be contemplated as a pollutant?
Considering all of the above, one wonders what exactly we are trying to achieve in South Africa. The legacy surely can only be for the benefit of our children. I suppose the holistic view would be to contemplate a broader definition of environmental sustainability for the benefit of future inhabitants.
This is a grave responsibility and, in my view, this needs to be taken very seriously, as the errors of this generation will not likely be resolved by the next. Humans need many things to exist and need to exist in harmony within the environment, and to single out CO2 is incredibly short-sighted and naïve, in my opinion.
Dominating the choice of technology by this measure solely must be revisited as a matter of urgency because of many unrecognised consequences. Surely one would reason that the next generation will have to be able to exist as individuals in a growing population with an abundance of means to meet all the needs of a human being?
Destroying the base load of nuclear, coal and gas is not going to achieve this, and in fact, will probably threaten the core of human existence. Substituting such energy with cooking on an open fire using indigenous bush is unlikely to achieve better outcomes.
The economy, as the cumulative measurement of the state of mind of the individual contributors, is one such ignored yardstick to test the plan. The popular drive to introduce new energy sources, without proper thought processes being applied, is more advanced in some places in the world and the consequence alike. South Australia presents a useful case study.
Historically, most of the power was produced by coal-fired power stations, which were phased out by 2016 and replaced first with gas generation and then renewables. Considering the price on an inflation-adjusted basis, the power price was stable (and competitive) from 1980 to 2003.
The aggressive pursuit of renewable generation has led to a dramatic increase in the period 2007 to 2012, combined with regular blackouts due to system stability issues and the loss of manufacturing industries as products produced with expensive power cannot compete in the International market.
These are lessons South Africa cannot afford to learn in the same way. We are surely heading in the same direction. Tariff increases in South Africa over the past few years is one indicator that we need to keep an eye on, as well as the new threat of constant Stage 8 load shedding and another 30 percent price increase promised early next year.
We need to respond to danger in a holistic manner and deal with the threats as we become aware of imminent danger. If CO2 is a threat, let’s deal with it by attacking the consequence - not by introducing new variables which could turn out to be even worse.
First, we need to define the goal, which I can only assume is the protection of the human environment. People, not unlike plants, need certain things to flourish and initially, these needs seem to be simplistic - good soil, sunlight and water. At further study, one very quickly finds a world of interconnected chemical processes forming a complex system that is surprisingly resilient to intervention.
The human environment is also a complex, interconnected, dynamic, sensitive environment, which is easily disturbed. We sometimes spend hours discussing the pros and cons of an interest rate hike and the effect it will have on humankind, yet we decide without consultation or understanding to rip the bases of a solid good economy out from under the success and replace it with something 500 percent more expensive, which will be around for the next 50 years. How can we not see the threat in this?
We did not deal with the problem; we created a bigger one, maybe not even based on the real threat. If we can burn coal cleanly and have minimal impact on the single measurement in CO2 and we can simultaneously adapt the technology mix not to cause massive tariff hikes but, in fact, reduce the cost of energy, then surely, we need to take note.
The destruction of the future economic environment, in my view, is even more detrimental than the road we are currently on in South Africa. It was the same unsustainable decisions of the past that have brought us to this juncture. The solution is actually very simple, and the only other variable we need to tend to is time.
I recently consulted prospective independent power producers who were very frustrated with the lack of transmission capacity in some places in South Africa. The frustration centred around the Utility’s inability to supply suitable evacuation equipment for new prospective operators, and surely, this hampers the transition to renewable capacity?
In my view, this is all wrong and indicative of the current problem. Yes, the capacity is limited between 10am and 3pm, since everybody just dumps the Photo Voltaic energy into the grid and that is when the sun produces energy. That still leaves us with 19 hours of full capacity to produce; but this was never built into the Government programmes of South Africa.
So, this is not a capacity problem but a time problem. See how quickly we can create problems by answering the wrong question. We need to think about electricity in a different way - electricity is not energy but a means of transmitting energy. It needs to be generated at the moment in time that it is needed, else either the voltage or the frequency is affected.
So, the most important part of power production is time. Why do we now deal with this significant oversight so late in the game? These decisions have been executed already at an enormous cost to us, the people of South Africa. We need to understand that the power network is the biggest asset on the balance sheet of South Africa, and we are making very significant changes to it, but the thought process is flawed, just in this one simple example, and there are many more.
During 2020, the production related to the installed capacity of PV was 0.347, which means if we compare the installed capacity of all the PV installations with coal base load, it is 2.0GW x 0.347 = 694 MW equal to one of the units at Kendal. All the Wind at 2.5GW relates to 2.5 x 0.411 equal 1000 MW, about 72 percent of two of its units.
Combined, the total expenditure of the Renewable program in SA has replaced less than three units at Kendal for a cost of ca. R201 Billion. We need to apply our minds to the following issues:
• Our environmental programme started long before the consummation of our Environmental Act and the foresight of people in South Africa’s history declaring conservation areas during the late 1800s which, measured against the Act, complies with a number of the criteria, and it is my opinion that this issue was addressed relatively well, and the current situation attests to it.
New developments and the possible impact on the environment is properly executed. Environmental legislation, however, in my opinion, needs to be tested against the same ideology of cause and effect and to quantify the possible impact to human environment, inclusive of our most important environmental variable, “the economy”.
It is possible, by example, that untested emission legislation will cause the price of energy to escalate, which will force the lower income group in SA to burn more wood for energy, which is detrimental to our environment, both in terms of increased emissions as well as the destruction of vegetation (carbon sinks). The same could cause the forced shutdown of our only remaining power generators in the short term, which will completely destroy our economy and the way of life of all South Africans.
In the face of Armageddon, one could comply, but in the current situation I think it insane to even consider it. It surely is not the concern of other developed countries still in coal construction easing legislation over a long period of time.
We need to consider that electricity needs to be consumed at the same time of generation, and abusing Eskom as an ‘electricity bank’ is not a sustainable process. It was by far the biggest oversight in the renewable energy program in SA.
This hidden cost is the responsibility of the utility to protect the network frequency like transmission security. Our renewable energy programme is silent on this issue, but the problem has presented itself very clearly in other countries.
We need to learn from this and ensure that we consider both capacity as well as energy dispatch in time in all instances. The time-of-use tariff, in large part, falls on deaf ears since the final exit to the end-user is not time-based, removing the motive to reduce use in peak.
The human environment is a complex, fragile system, and we all have to have an input. I do not think we will prioritise the protection of ‘the environment’ the same as what it seems to be today.
Superficially, we will immediately come up with the obvious: Air, Water, Land, Animals, and Human well-being. My experience in executing living security studies, however, culminate in the dignity of existence, and in this domain, the big threats are unsustainable, expensive environmental costs of existence, which is where we spend 2/3 of our time to earn a living and protect the future of our families.
The only logical way forward is to now concentrate on all these issues and execute well-considered actions to protect our immediate future, and to draft plans to build the future environment without making these mistakes again. Our country does not have the resources to learn from our mistakes - we need to be one step ahead, and at this stage, we are not in that space.
Jaco de la Rouviere, Chairperson of Inovasure (Pty) Ltd.
*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.
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