OPINION: Clean coal technologies will maximise SA's reserves

By Ellington Nxumalo Time of article published Aug 1, 2019

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JOHANNESBURG - South Africa, like many other African countries, has a wealth of mineral resources that should make our country more globally competitive and be the basis of our developmental state.

Despite these resources, the last decade has seen South Africa experience bouts of load shedding, with energy experts estimating the most recent bout of load shedding to have cost the country R1billion per stage, per day.

Considering our significant resources, South Africa has an opportunity to enhance energy security and introduce a diverse energy mix that will promote investment in energy innovation and also stimulate economic growth. The key to achieving this will be finding a new, responsible role for coal.

Up until 2007, South Africa’s energy security was not an issue of national debate, but everything changed in November 2007 when Eskom began suffering from unplanned outages.

Subsequent bouts of load shedding in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019 have brought the issue of energy security into sharp focus. South Africa currently relies heavily on coal, which is responsible for 77percent of the electricity generated. The heavy dependence on coal is understandable as our country is endowed with an estimated 66billion tons of coal reserves, which are comparatively easily accessible and cost effective to mine. That leaves South Africa with the 9th highest reserves of coal globally.

Designing an energy system that will leave South Africa with enough energy to combat our socio-economic malaise and empower the developmental state’s objective will require careful consideration.

While the country certainly needs to increase its investment in renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind as the initial step in diversifying the energy mix, the continuing role of coal needs to be carefully considered, particularly for a stable base-load supply which renewable energy sources are currently unable to provide.

For South Africa to achieve the ambitious goals of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, we require a certain amount of pragmatism around the most expedient use of our considerable coal reserves as the basis of our ongoing energy security as conceptualised in the draft IRP Update 2018, released in March 2019 - which still sees a sizeable role for coal.

How can this be done while maintaining our commitment to reducing emissions and environmental stewardship?

A potential answer to this is the development and realisation of clean coal technologies, and their integration into the National Development Plan. There are multiple clean coal technologies in various stages of development.

What will be very important for South Africa, is for the country to integrate these emergent technologies to ensure that we use the mineral wealth with which we are endowed to develop the South African economy.

The Draft IRP Update 2018 released in March 2019 recognises the fact that coal will continue to play a significant role in electricity generation in the foreseeable future as it is the largest base of the installed generation capacity and it makes up the largest share of energy.

However, it also acknowledges the fact that investments will need to be made in new flexible and more efficient technologies (high efficiency, low emission coal technology, including new supercritical pulverised fuel power plants with flue-gas desulphurisation) to comply with climate and environmental requirements.

For South Africa to develop responsibly and sustainably, it is important that we are innovative with the use of energy as a fuel for growth.

Crucial for our economy is to diversify the energy sources by including renewables in the energy mix - the future is hybrid, not reliant on a single technology (as has been the case in the past).

A pragmatic, realistic and future-forward South Africa needs to prioritise clean coal technologies to maximise the opportunity in our country’s abundant coal reserves. This power, sustainably deployed for development, will keep the spotlight we have turned on our future brightly shining.

Ellington Nxumalo is the chief executive of Lurco, a diversified commodities, beneficiation and trading business.


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