The delays associated with the coal-fired Medupi power station in Limpopo are an indication that Eskom is incapable of project-managing the building of large plants, says the writer. Picture: Simphiwe Mbokazi

The decision to “go nuclear” in SA has more to do with politics than economics, writes Jasson Urbach.

South Africa is “going the nuclear route”, according to the Department of Energy’s acting director-general, Dr Wolsey Barnard. But given Eskom’s dire financial predicament, the government is opting for a “vendor-financed” option.

We should applaud the fact that Eskom, probably, will not be building South Africa’s next power station.

The delays and cost overruns associated with Medupi and Kusile demonstrate it’s not competent as a project manager for the building of such large plants.

However, the decision to “go nuclear” has more to do with politics than economics. Nuclear is costly – given the dramatic fall in gas prices, a private enterprise would not build a nuclear plant in the current operating environment. And nuclear will take too long to deliver – South Africa needs power sooner rather than later.

Proponents of nuclear over other energy sources argue it is cheaper. Indeed, nuclear fuel costs are low, as are variable running costs, but who can predict what the “relative cost” of suitable nuclear fuel will be in 10 to 20 years’ time, let alone 50 to 60 years?

Compared to, say, gas or coal-fired plants, nuclear power plants are more expensive to build. Especially when the significant expenses involved with decommissioning a nuclear plant are factored into the overall cost.

Proponents of nuclear power may point out that the government securing a vendor-financed agreement means “build now, pay later”.

Under such an arrangement, Eskom is likely to enter into a power purchase agreement with the owner of the nuclear plant and be committed to purchasing power at a predetermined tariff.

The country would be financially crippled if locked into a financial commitment of this kind for decades to come. Such a financing model will continue to cost us all substantially more as long as we are prevented from procuring the required services in an open competitive market.

Going the nuclear route using a vendor-financing option will also be a huge setback for independent power producers. There will be less capacity allocated to the private sector at a time when private power is proving the more affordable option.

When given the opportunity to supply electricity, the private sector has demonstrated it is able to produce it at prices lower than Eskom. Through the government’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers programme, independent power producers that have been permitted to supply electricity generated from renewable sources have been steadily reducing the cost of electricity.

For example, in Round 1, the average wind energy price was 114c/kWh. In Round 2, the average price was 89c/kWh with prices as low as 79c/kWh. All indications are that prices will be lower in Round 3 despite significant adverse movement in the interest rate, exchange rate and rising inflation.

Increased competition among independent power producers producing electricity from solar power has also seen significant price decreases from one round to the next.

Professor Anton Eberhard says: “Risks can be minimised through investments in a diverse portfolio of modular, less capital-intensive technologies, such as gas and renewables, that can be deployed rapidly and flexibly to meet changing demand patterns.”

This is exactly the solution we need to deal with this crisis.

The government should not be determining the “appropriate energy mix” – this should be left to the market.

Meeting South Africa’s power shortage should be put out to tender so private companies can bid to build, own and operate the power stations. Private companies that use their own money instead of that of taxpayers to build the power plants, will be more adept at enforcing tight controls over the contractors employed in the build process.

Any cost overruns would be borne by the private owners and not by taxpaying South Africans. All that the government needs to concern itself with is to get the best price and conserve scarce taxpayer resources.

Future policies should enable the development of gas solutions. With the strong possibility that there is gas in the Karoo, competing companies should be allowed to explore ways to extract it.

“We should not be dithering,” said Professor Philip Lloyd.

But this should not be a political decision. The role of the government is to regulate to ensure companies adhere to the rules for safe operation.

South Africa’s outdated power model, where a single entity is responsible for all of the generation, transmission and a large part of the distribution, has been abandoned in every commercially competitive country worldwide.

Independent power producers are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to build, own and operate power stations. They will not start supplying electricity to customers, though, if Eskom retains the power to be referee and player in the market.

The government should create a policy environment that provides the right economic incentives to attract companies to use and develop resources.

It needs to establish an independent transmission system and market operator so that energy companies can have unconstrained access to the grid.

With the right economic environment a multitude of independent power producers will compete to deliver sufficient and affordable energy to our growing economy.

* Jasson Urbach is an economist and director of the Free Market Foundation.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus