Russia ready to help South Africa out of indefinite power cuts

Russian state-owned energy company Rosatom proposes solutions to the energy crisis currently facing South Africa.

Russian state-owned energy company Rosatom proposes solutions to the energy crisis currently facing South Africa.

Published Apr 13, 2023


In this interview, the Cape Times seeks to understand what the Russian state-owned energy company Rosatom proposes as solutions to the energy crisis currently facing South Africa.

CEO of Rosatom Central and Southern Africa, Ryan Collyer answered a few questions:

Ryan Collyer

Q: Is Russia and its state -owned energy companies ready to assist South Africa with its energy problems? What are the solutions that come to mind, that South Africa can explore?

A: Rosatom is a very strong proponent of a diversified energy mix.

We strongly believe that the country should use all available assets and energy sources to provide the most efficient, stable and sustainable energy mix to grow the economy.

South Africa for instance is blessed with an abundance of natural resources that should be utilized in solving the energy crises, both in the short term and in the long term, thus to ensure it does not find itself in a similar situation in the future.

It is our belief therefore that in the short term, focus should be given towards the immediate repair of the current thermal generation assets.

Through our subsidiaries and partners in Russia we would be able and willing to assist in the short term, with the process of repairing, upgrading and extending the lifespan of the current Eskom thermal fleet, as well as reducing emissions in this fleet to mitigate negative climate effects.

We can also help by implementing wind, small scale hydropower and battery storage projects, this on a government, municipal and private scale, which would assist in alleviating the immediate pressure on the South African grid.

In the medium term we would recommend to focus on the installation of gas infrastructure at the South African ports, upgrade the current fleet of gas turbines to run on natural gas, and not diesel as they currently do, as well as construct a fleet of new gas to power plants, this would assist in stabilising the grid in the medium and long term as more intermittent renewables come online and begin replacing the existing thermal fleet.

In a parallel process we strongly believe that the country should embark on its long-awaited nuclear programme to ensure stable, affordable and environmentally friendly base load power for generations to come.

In general, nuclear technologies, along with solar, wind, hydropower and other low-carbon solutions, should form the basis of the future global energy mix, complementing and enhancing each other’s strengths.

The energy policy in some countries has been taken hostage by anti-nuclear prejudices and myths that a 100% renewable energy mix based on solely wind and solar is possible.

It is however rather predictable that the energy systems in these countries face a high energy security risk, due to an over dependence on intermittent power which is reliant on weather conditions, electricity prices in these cases will also be impossible to predict.

Interestingly, the replacement capacity requirements in these scenarios actually increase the risk these countries failing to meet their own decarbonization plans.

Nuclear technologies can however, due to very high-capacity factors and very predictable long term power costs, effectively solve these problems.

Over the last five years, Eskom has implemented several significant price hikes that have affected both residential and commercial consumers. These increases have been driven by a range of factors, including rising fuel costs, inflation, and ageing infrastructure.

Even though Eskom’s price hikes were necessary to ensure the sustainability of the power grid, increases could have been avoided if the country had invested more heavily in nuclear energy in the past.

Nuclear energy can help to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels, which are subject to price volatility. Investing in nuclear energy could also have helped to stabilize electricity prices by providing a reliable, baseload power source that is not subject to the same price fluctuations as other sources of energy.

Nuclear power plants have a lifespan of several decades and can operate at high capacity factors, which means that they can generate a consistent supply of electricity over time.

Moreover, nuclear energy can be generated at scale, making it an ideal solution for meeting the growing energy demands of a country like South Africa.

While renewable energy sources like wind and solar have an important role to play in the energy mix, they are subject to intermittency and are not always able to meet the baseload demand for electricity.

Very few countries actually share the view that nuclear power is outdated or too expensive. Countries such as Great Britain, Finland, France, Korea, Russia, China, India and Türkiye have recently built and continue to build nuclear power plants.

We remain committed to working with our partners in South Africa in solving the country’s energy woes, we also remain committed to localising our solutions to the highest possible level, thus to ensure knowledge transfer and boost job creation in the country.

Q: From what you have observed, what does it require to resolve this energy crisis and approximately how long would this take?

A: From our purely technical observations we believe that with the successful execution of an appropriate repair and maintenance schedule for the current fleet of thermal power plants and an increased role out of renewables with adequate battery storage, the crisis can be alleviated in the short term, a couple of years. This estimation, however, does not account for mismanagement and other interferences, which may drastically prolong the current crises.

This said, when considering the decommissioning plan of the country’s large scale thermal power plants, which envisions Eskom retiring around 22GW of current base load generation capacity, roughly half of its current installed capacity by 2035 and the low rate at which the country is commissioning new generation, coupled with the country’s flawed least cost model, which supports an over reliance on intermittent power, should be of grave concern.

A great deal of attention needs be paid to the medium and long term implementation of a balanced mix of generation assets to ensure energy security to bolster the country’s ailing economy into the future.

Nuclear power is the only large scale low-carbon baseload power source that is available in South Africa and therefore needs to play a vital role in the longer-term replacement of the country’s aging thermal assets.

Q: How has Russia managed to have one of the most stable power supplies in the world and how can that success be replicated in our local context?

A: In the 90s Russia was in a similar situation as South Africa is in today.

The country achieved success through a well-balanced privatisation programme, which focused on ring fencing key assets such as nuclear power plants and large-scale hydro into state utilities. Privatisation of non-core generation assets with long term power purchase agreements, based on feasible asset succession plans formed the base for the country’s energy transformation.

This combination of public and private sector participation has insured security of supply as well as competitive pricing. In 2008–2017, 26.5 thousand MW were commissioned through capacity supply contracts, and a total of 39.8 thousand MW of new capacity was commissioned. This is about three times more than in the previous decade: there was nothing like it before 30 years ago.

Q: Russia has a massive nuclear offering and South Africa was on the verge of entering into partnership with Russia to explore that avenue before it was blocked by the courts. Do you think that was a missed opportunity?

A: It is vital to note that Rosatom was one of the interested vendors who had signed an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with South Africa as well as participated in the Request for Information (RFI) process and that no nuclear deal was struck with any South African entity or administration. Rosatom was and remains committed to participating in an open and transparent nuclear procurement process in South Africa.

The Western Cape High Court decision of 26 April 2017, had no direct relation to Rosatom. The determination referred to the internal ratification procedures of the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa for three government-to-government agreements signed in 2014 with Russia, South Korea and the USA. This determination has no material effect on our cooperation with the Republic of South Africa in terms of nuclear power development for peaceful purposes.

However, it is important to note that had the nuclear programme moved forward in a timely fashion, with Rosatom or another vendor, the country would be very near to commissioning its first nuclear units at this point and ultimately the current crisis would ultimately be soon averted.

Q: How has Russia’s partnership with other African countries in the energy sector played out?

A: The company has an active presence on the continent in the form of a marketing office based in Cape Town, which services Sub-Saharan Africa. We have a long list of partners in Africa.

The company has signed numerous agreements in Sub-Saharan Africa, including but not limited to: Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Republic of Congo and Ethiopia, this in the creation of infrastructure in the field of nuclear energy, the production of radioisotopes for industry, medicine and agriculture, as well as in the training and retraining of personnel. In 2020, ROSATOM also signed an MOU with the African Commission for Nuclear Energy (AFCONE) in order to develop and strengthen mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Rosatom also has two uranium deposit in Tanzania and Namibia. The region remains a priority for Rosatom and we are actively working with numerous African nations to assist them in reaching their nuclear ambitions. Our flagship projects on the continent are the construction of the El Dabaa NPP in Egypt, as well as the implementation of the Centre for Nuclear Science and Technology (CNST) in Zambia.