ENERGY MIX 'GAME CHANGER'

IRP2019: coal dominance continues, with nods to renewables – and nuclear

By Marianne Merten 18 October 2019
Caption
Minerals Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe addresses the audience during the Sasol Shondoni colliery inauguration on July 05, 2018 near Secunda, South Africa. Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Moeletsi Mabe)

South Africa’s new Independent Resource Plan (IRP) continues to hold the line of an energy mix dominated by coal, alongside independent power producers and renewables. In Friday’s ministerial briefing gas was described as the future 'game changer' as mini-nuclear also popped up.

Friday’s release of the 2019 Independent Resource Plan (IRP) was a crucial policy moment even if policy quality may still be up for debate. Up for consultation appear to be many details – from rands and cents for coal and independent power producers (IPPs), or exactly how much capacity should be expected when, including offshore and Karoo gas resources.

The IRP is the key planning and policy document for the country’s energy needs, including bringing online new power generation. It’s supposed to be regularly updated. Except it wasn’t. Not since May 2011, as it became stuck in the Jacob Zuma administration push for a large-scale 9,600 MegaWatt nuclear build, favouring the Russians.

The move was defeated by a combination of factors, including National Treasury blocking funding and the successful court action by Earthlife Africa and Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (Safcei) that put the breaks on.

But on Friday, nuclear made a comeback as part of South Africa’s energy mix – even if in mini, rather than mega format.

The IRP outlines the need to extend the lifespan of Koeberg, the nuclear power station outside Cape Town, by 20 years to 2044, and then to take that lead time to build “small” modular nuclear generators.

(A)s it is the case with coal, small nuclear units will be a much

more manageable investment when compared to a fleet approach. The development of such plants elsewhere in the world is therefore particularly interesting for South Africa, and upfront planning with regard to additional nuclear capacity is requisite, given the ( greater than) 10-year lead time, for timely decision making and implementation,” says the IRP.

When it was pointed out at Friday’s briefing this evolving was Russian, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe dismissed this as “cynical because you are referring to the last debate”.

Any 9,6000MW-sized nuclear build was definitely off the cards as South Africa could move only at the pace and cost it could afford. “We build our nuclear capacity now; we need not wait until 2044,” said Mantashe. “We are not going to go big scale…

But IRP2019 seemed to hammer home that coal remained the mainstay of South Africa’s energy mix. That IRP 2019 did not announce major shifts seems to be based on government’s view that, as Mantashe put it, “none of the assumption since the IRP2010 have changed”.

While the political view on nuclear definitely has changed to mini rather than mega, IPPs and renewables seem to remain caught up in political and ideological tussles – even at the presidential task team on a sustainable Eskom where the push for a green energy special vehicle is mostly dismissed as unaffordable. On the renewable front, it seemed energy storage was the identified growth sector.

And so coal remains central despite concerns about emissions pollution, particularly in Mpumalanga, the new carbon tax and the pressure faced to retrain and re-skill tens of thousands of workers in those coal power stations representing the 24,100MW to be decommissioned by 2050.

The socio-economic impact of the decommissioning of these Eskom plants has not been quantified or included in this IRP,” says the document.

Mantashe argued that coal would continue to be “dominant”, contributing 59% to the energy mix. In comparison the IRP outlines contributions of nuclear at 5% – that may change from 2030 when the additional capacity is anticipated and Koeberg’s life span expansion would also hike its current 1,926MW capacity – solar at 6%, wind 18% and hydro power 8%, with 2,500MW from the Grand Inga Hydropower Project with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

There are 16 power stations and they are not going to be decommissioned in the next five years. They will be around for a long time,” said Mantashe. “We are cautioning people who are saying coal is coming to an end… Coal will continue to play a significant role.”

But the reality is South Africa faces a transition, given the decommissioning of old coal power stations and the unbundling of Eskom into three entities on generation, transmission and distribution.

While the IRP may not necessarily deal with any of this in detail – a special paper on Eskom has been pending since February – it does cite “just transition” as one of its nine policy positions.

In order to ensure a socially just transition, the engagement process must commence to put in place the plans and interventions that mitigate against adverse impacts of the plant retirement programme on people and local economies. This plan will then inform the next iteration of the IRP update,” according to the IRP2019.

And that task team may be up and running sooner than anyone expected, said Mantashe on Friday.

That’s not unlikely given that talk of just transition already is linked with the restructuring plans of Eskom. Talk is the Eskom special paper would finally be released by end of October in line with the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS), which is expected to talk to Eskom and its dire finances.

It’s taken over a year to get to this point – on Wednesday Cabinet approved the 2019 IRP after it was published in August 2018 for public comment – and several sticking points remain unresolved.

Business, labour and government didn’t quite see eye to eye in the long-dragged out consultations at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac).

The IRP2019 was officially adopted and published just as South Africa was hit by another round of load-shedding. It’s as if to underscore the relationship of energy planning of the IRP with the crucial link of availability and cost of energy to economic growth. DM

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