By Thabo Mokoena
South Africa remains fully committed to the Paris Agreement that obligates signatory countries to combat the effects of climate change as we transition to low-carbon economies based on low-carbon emissions technologies.
As a starting point, it is important to emphasise that South Africa continues to rely on coal for 75% of our electricity generation, despite the recent commitment we made to reduce our reliance on coal-based electricity generation to below 60% by 2030.
Our efforts towards a Just Energy Transition are informed by the Integrated Resource Plan of 2019 (IRP2019), which promotes the implementation of an inclusive energy mix.
In this regard, the Department of Minerals Resources and Energy (DMRE) is currently in the process of developing a Just Energy Transition Framework in the current financial year, and is working with key stakeholders such as the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) and Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) among others.
Moving from 75% to below 60% by 2030 represents a transition which allows for a gradual assimilation of other energy sources into the current mix, as opposed to an abrupt overnight revolution which could lead to unanticipated challenges.
Our unwavering commitment as a country to renewable energy has seen us establish the Independent Power Producer Office, responsible for running an IPP procurement programme that is counted among the best in the world.
Currently, the largest allocation for new generation capacity to be developed between now and 2030 is renewable energy, which includes solar photovoltaics (PV), wind and hydro -- which are the flagship sources for clean renewable energy (RE) -- as well as battery storage.
The IRP 2019 provides for 14 400MW of additional wind power, 6 000MW of additional solar power, 2 500MW of hydro power and 2 088MW of battery storage capacity. This additional generation capacity of clean renewable energy (totalling 24 988MW) is against 1 500MW of additional coal power by the year 2030.
To date the DMRE has completed procurement of 6 422MW of RE through 5 Bid Windows. By the end June 2021, 5 250MW was already connected to the grid to supply the nation.
The DMRE is now in the process of procuring an additional 6 800MW of RE, and 2 600MW of this power falls under the Bid Window 5, whose 25 preferred bidders were evaluated and announced on October 28 this year. The remainder of the 6 800MW renewable energy capacity is planned for procurement before the end of 2022.
In addition to the renewable energy bid windows, the DMRE is also preparing bid windows for 1 500MW of new build coal; 3 000MW of gas; and 513MW of battery energy storage, in line with the Second Ministerial Determination, which was promulgated on September 25, 2020.
In addition, the Risk Mitigation Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme for 2 000MW of power from varied energy sources is due to close at the end of January 2022.
Unlike the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Programme, which is dedicated to investment in non-fossil fuel energy sources, the 2 000MW RMIPPPP is technology agnostic, and the current approved bidders encompass offerings from solar, wind, gas, and battery storage from interested private sector companies.
At the heart of our national endeavour to combat climate change is the Integrated Resource Plan on the one hand, and availability of technology and ensuring the electricity grid’s system stability on the other.
This requires that we approach our transition to cleaner forms of electricity generation in a carefully balanced manner, taking into consideration our current electrical grid topology and requirement for baseload generation, among other factors.
As the DMRE, we have insisted that all our energy programmes remain within the confines of the IRP2019, which includes all sources, as part of our energy mix.
There is, therefore, no bias for or against any source, except that our choices are influenced by the balance between technology, electrical system stability, need to meet baseload, and available energy resources.
Coal remains in abundant supply in South Africa, and, as indicated, is the main source for electricity generation as it guarantees a reliable baseload supply; that is to say the generation of an uninterrupted and constant supply of electricity for the nation’s economic and social endeavours.
Other technologies that are capable of meeting our baseload requirements include nuclear energy. Thus, as part of our commitment to cleaner energy to combat climate change, in June 2020 we successfully issued a Request for Information (RFI) for 2 500MW capacity for the new nuclear build programme to test the market.
The outcome is indicative that nuclear is feasible to implement in South Africa based on cost and various possible financing models. Subsequently, in August 2021, Nersa issued a concurrence on the Section 34 Determination under the Electricity Regulation Act of 2006 for 2 500MW of nuclear generation capacity.
The department is in the process of solidifying a way forward by addressing some of the suspensive conditions that came with the concurrence. A way forward on the approach towards the procurement will ensue once all the conditions have been properly assessed and considered.
In this instance, as a country we have the required raw materials, skills and technological experience for the running of nuclear power plants. This capacity is demonstrated by a twin-unit Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, which are pressurised water reactors that were commissioned in 1984 and 1985 respectively, and which continues to operate safely, feeding into the national electricity grid. This power station is also earmarked for its life extension by an additional 20 years from 2024.
Noting that nuclear energy is a baseload source that falls within the clean energy suite, the government’s intentions in growing our current nuclear energy capacity is a positive in the direction of the sustainable just energy transition.
Furthermore, we believe that retrofitting existing coal-powered plants with nuclear systems and/or natural gas feedstock is cost effective and would ensure continued economic development in areas where the current majority of South Africa’s electricity sector depends on those installations. It would also reduce the need for rapid expansion of grid infrastructure.
As already indicated, technology will continue to play a critical role with regards to the speed by which we conduct a just energy transition. As we transit to clean energy, we place a high premium on job security, baseload supply and the stability of the economy.
Investment in technology is as important as the sector inputs towards new, cleaner energy generation. South Africa is a world leader in natural resource reserves and exploitation of the Platinum Group Metals (PGM).
These PGMs promise a new terrain on a large scale of the exploitation of hydrogen as a source of energy. As a country we value this avenue so much that we have invested in the Hydrogen South Africa (HySa) programme.
Our aim is to be a leading supplier of catalytic converters as used in vehicles, but also for catalysts as used in fuel cells. Our aim through this project is to cater for 25% of the global supply of such catalysts.
Through the Council for Geo-Science (CGS), we are continuously exploring potential ways of carbon utilisation in contributing to enhanced geothermal energy generation and improved extraction of coal-bed methane.
Through the CGS we continue to look into improving ways of carbon capture and storage. Part of our challenge on the just transition is how to have clean coal, and this has, by and large, to do with technological advances.
We must, as a country, continue to invest in technological advances on clean coal, battery storage and other technological innovations that will help us to realise the objectives of the Paris Agreement as we implement the IRP2019.
Our quest must be to look into the totality of all avenues as opposed to pitting one energy source against the other. Our choices remain informed by the availability of technology and the material resources that are factored input into energy generation.
By introducing new energy technologies, such as nuclear Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) that are load following with high flexibility and by improving on battery storage and other technological advances on renewable energy sources, that in itself will help us as a country to offset the need to supply peak demand from diesel generators any more, but to rather provide the required power through renewable energy sources.
Re-skilling of the workforce into other technologies will also be important. Gradually such improvements will factor into the just energy transition which rides on the backbone of the IRP2019.
* Thabo Mokoena is Director-General of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.