Our Burning Planet


‘Repurposing’ coal infrastructure can boost South Africa’s energy transition, International Energy Agency says

‘Repurposing’ coal infrastructure can boost South Africa’s energy transition, International Energy Agency says
Solar panels at an energy-generating facility. (Photo: Unsplash) | Coal delivery trucks queue outside Eskom's Kusile Power Station. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Wind turbines at the Umoya Energy wind farm in Hopefield, South Africa. (Photo: Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

While South Africa continues its enormous coal consumption, the environmental implications of its use – now and in the future – have never been more clear, and never has the need to robustly address its place in society been more salient. The International Energy Agency says countries can repurpose coal infrastructure to aid their clean energy transitions, and Minister Gwede Mantashe agrees.

South Africa is the most coal-dependent country in the world for its energy needs, and coal is the most harmful fossil fuel in terms of its impact on health, global warming and human-induced climate change. The country, however, also suffers from a toxic mixture of staggering unemployment levels with entire towns and livelihoods tied to the coal value chain, persistent energy insecurity and a power utility that is financially incapable of investing in cleaner forms of power generation.

In the context of this quagmire, a recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), Security of Clean Energy Transitions, suggests one pathway to address all of these issues: repurposing coal infrastructure.   

The report’s abstract explains that it “examines the evolving challenges of maintaining energy security in the context of clean energy transitions on the pathway to net zero emissions”. 

The report “highlights key energy security concerns during energy transitions and provides governments, notably within the Group of Twenty (G20), with policy recommendations for maintaining and improving energy security, while accelerating clean energy transitions”.

South Africa is in the top 20 greenhouse gas emitters worldwide and causes more than 1% of all historical greenhouse gas emissions. Rapidly reducing global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is an increasingly urgent and necessary task if humanity is to limit an increase in the average global temperature to below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. 

The most recent accounting of the science of climate change and global warming – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Working Group I report – estimates the value of global warming to date at 1.1°C.

Beyond 1.5°C is considered “dangerous climate change”.

See South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions and emissions targets.

The agency’s report says that “repurposing coal infrastructure can accelerate just and secure energy transitions. The most interesting asset in the coal value chain is generally the coal power plant and its associated infrastructure, in particular the connection with the electricity transmission grid. There is currently over 2,000GW of coal power generation capacity that could be converted into low-carbon assets in different ways, providing adequacy, flexibility and stability to the electricity grid.” 

The first option would be to retrofit coal-fired power plants with carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) technologies. “Another option is to use low-carbon fuels, such as sustainable biomass, or ammonia produced from renewable hydrogen or fossil fuels in combination with CCUS”.

The government and Sasol are looking into this ammonia, among other hydrogen-related initiatives. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: “The past, present and future of coal-fired power in South Africa

Our Burning Planet reported in January that Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele described a “groundbreaking venture between the national government, the Northern Cape and Sasol which will bring much-needed economic growth and investment to our shores through the production of green hydrogen”.

“Over the past 12 months, Infrastructure South Africa has been working with the Northern Cape and Gauteng provincial governments to develop catalytic green H2 projects that will underpin provincial green H2 strategies, with the Northern Cape being the production hub and Gauteng being the domestic demand hub.”

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

Green hydrogen is produced using renewable energy and electrolysis to split water, and is distinct from grey hydrogen, which uses gas to split water and releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Compared with combustion engines or fossil fuels, the only by-product of green hydrogen is water vapour.

The IEA’s report explains that biomass has an “additional advantage” in that, when combined with CCUS, “it can turn coal power plants, currently the largest source of CO2 emissions, into a source of negative emissions”. 

It says “the conversion or retrofitting of existing coal power plants offers many advantages, in particular the prospect of faster permitting processes and use of an existing electricity grid connection, two important bottlenecks identified in clean energy transitions”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Shutting down coal is a matter of conscience – just ask the victims of Mpumalanga’s deadly air

“The repurposing of existing infrastructure offers the prospect of accelerating the transition. For instance, existing thermal assets can provide the flexibility that variable renewable energy sources call for, complementing other sources, such as transmission, storage and demand response, while securing emission reduction benefits if they are run on lower-carbon fuels.”

Benefits and disruptions 

Particularly relevant for South Africa and Mpumalanga in particular with its dependency on the coal value chain, the report notes the potential disruptions that decommissioning of coal infrastructure can cause.  

“The decommissioning of existing infrastructure can cause economic disruption for local communities that are dependent on it for employment and revenues. Leveraging existing strengths to identify new uses for existing infrastructure during the transition can bring many benefits. Notably, repurposing or converting existing infrastructure allows for the preservation of large parts of the value of the infrastructure, while retaining jobs and tax bases in communities where the infrastructure is located,” it reads. 

Thabo Mokoena, former director-general of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, previously has written that “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”. 

He added that “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.”

Our Burning Planet sent questions to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy about whether this was still the department’s position. We were told these questions were better answered by Eskom.  

Despite this, Bloomberg previously reported that Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe is forging ahead with his plan to create a new state-owned power company by converting three coal-fired plants into gas-burning generators.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Mantashe suggests forming second state-owned power utility to solve energy crisis – Ramaphosa agrees

In an interview he is quoted as saying: “If we repurpose them into gas power stations we will save a lot of life in South Africa in terms of energy.” 

Mantashe’s plan envisages taking over the ageing Hendrina, Grootvlei and Camden plants, which have a combined generation capacity of 4,800 megawatts, the Bloomberg report noted. OBP/DM

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