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A drastic shift from coal baseload supply is not an option for South Africa

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Avuyile Xabadiya is Chief Economist in the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. He writes in his personal capacity.

Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe seems to be among the few who takes the views of engineers very seriously. As such, he receives many insults from sociologists and medical practitioners who claim to be knowledgeable about the technicality of energy but in reality know nothing except insults, emotional blackmail and personalising government policies.

South Africa is one of the countries worldwide that is hailed as having good policies and a powerful Constitution. These policies are largely centred on reducing the triple challenges facing South Africa’s people. The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) and Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (Gear) had their phases and were implemented with each having its successes and failures.

However, the National Development Plan (NDP) is the only policy blueprint that is not reaching the majority of its targets. Failures of the NDP should be attributed not only to the government but to some civil society organisations and NGOs who always take the government to court and delay the implementation of the policies of the democratically elected government. 

Notwithstanding the fact that, at times, these organisations do contribute to enforcing some checks and balances to our democracy, most of the time they are a stumbling block to the progress of South Africa. They are mostly a stumbling block because they mischievously use the courts of law to delay the implementation of strategic policies which would have taken the majority of South African people out of our ticking time bomb, which is our increasing youth unemployed population, and that 50% of our people live below the poverty line.

The immediate case to demonstrate what I am trying to bring forward is the energy debate in South Africa, where the government is finding it difficult to implement its policy (the Integrated Resource Plan, IRP) that was developed democratically using resources of the state.

Many NGOs and civil society groups are deliberately or unknowingly pushing the technical electricity generation debate to become more environmental and political, thereby ignoring the rightful engineering voice which by and large is more technical. 

Though economists and policy experts are raising economically sound arguments regarding the energy matter, they are limited with regards to technical aspects of the energy sources necessary to give the baseload and system operability, among others. We must give thanks to Nersa’s vigilance in safeguarding the dignity of their engineering institution as well as sticking to the technical realities of energy sources that will provide South Africa with reliable energy that will assist the economy that has been shedding jobs for years.

Even though the debate continues with high emotions from environmentalists and politically motivated renewable energy lobbyists, economists and technical engineers on the other side continue with their vigilance in providing objective reasoning. Those of us who have experienced living in a developmental state are happy when the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) and its executives respect the views of engineers with regards to the energy transition.

The position taken by the DMRE with regards to the energy mix that will allow sources that will provide baseload supply and complementing of renewables by that baseload, provides a bit of hope that some leaders and departments will not compromise the economy due to pressure from external sources.

The position of South African engineers has been proven correct by many global experiences. The contemporary global energy crises have proven beyond reasonable doubt that a drastic shift from the baseload supply provided by coal is not an option for South Africa. That is particularly so if the replacement does not include a cleaner energy supply from other sources that will provide that baseload supply.

The world’s biggest polluters, who are equally industrialised economies, decided not to sign pledges at the recent COP26 that sought to dislocate their baseload supply as that will affect their economies. There is keen interest in the report to be released by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in May and June 2022, where they will be outlining the role of nuclear towards net zero, including the work done on clean coal technologies as well as advancements in reducing the price of clean technologies.

A country that does not take its engineers seriously finds it difficult to prosper. Most of the developments and innovations we have today developed on the back of engineers. That is even true for South Africa as it has developed to become the most industrialised African economy on the back of advice of visionary and developmental engineers such as Hendrik van der Bijl, as documented by former statistician-general Dr Pali Lehohla in a recent article.

It is without any doubt that a leader serving in this current executive who does not listen to the views of South Africa’s experienced professional engineers will not solve the energy crisis of Eskom and that of South Africa.

Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe seems to be among the few who takes the views of the engineers very seriously. As such, he receives many insults from sociologists and medical practitioners who claim to be knowledgeable about the technicality of energy but in reality know nothing except insults, emotional blackmail and personalising government policies.

If these actions persist, South Africa must forget about energy stability. To achieve energy stability, we need coherence and suppression of the voice of non-engineers in the engineering space. There is no way that we can expect a medical doctor to tell us about the intricacies of a boiler in a power station to the extent a professionally trained engineer with years working with boilers would.

We must not allow a culture that will make our country mediocre. In Beijing, where I did my Master of Commerce degree, we were in a programme where government officials of China took us to SOEs and many government-led programmes. In those trips each section is led by the right professional and his/her expertise is taken very seriously by the political leadership.

That is why when a professional advised the leadership wrong, they would rather resign immediately because they understood that as engineers and professionals, misleading the political leadership might lead to the economic collapse of the country. That is why even the Chinese don’t take advice from non-engineers on a technical issue, unlike in South Africa, where our ministers are insulted by non-engineering fellows in an engineering debate. 

South African commentators published in Daily Maverick and elsewhere, such as Richard Freund and Alex Lenferna, aver that the reason Minister Mantashe advocates for mixed energy including wind, solar, nuclear as well as gas and coal (using new technologies) is that he is pushing for the long-term use of fossil fuels. These critics are not aware or deliberately do not want to be aware of the technical aspects provided by baseload energy sources to the grid.

And until they understand that they are not engineers and that there are vital technical issues that should guide the transitions, their contributions in discourse need to be seen as such.

In addition, these commentators should be aware that the IRP 2019 is a government policy document, not a Gwede Mantashe policy document. Mantashe is just enforcing implementation of the policy. It should be noted that failure to consider these technical engineering aspects within the energy transition will be tantamount to committing economic suicide. DM 

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All Comments 25

  • Perhaps Mr Avuyile Xabadiya is not aware of the many studies, carried out by neutral and objective engineers and scientists, that demonstrate that a transition towards an energy system based on wind and solar plus energy storage, is technically feasible, costs less, provides more jobs, improves health and will allow South Africa to meet its international NDC commitments and avoid carbon tax penalties on our exports?

    Perhaps he also does not know about Eskom’s existing energy storage and peak load generation facilities that are required to balance our inflexible base load generation against our fluctuating energy demand?

    And, it should be noted that the IRP2019 was not based on the DMRE’s and Eskom’s own modelling studies. Rather, it was “policy adjusted” by the DMRE in favour of less renewable energy and more fossil fuels and at a considerably greater cost.
    So let’s leave the technical choices to the engineers and economists and keep the politicians and vested interests out!

  • Which engineers are you referring to that still say that we need to build new coal power stations to provide base load? There are many engineers (myself included) that believe that it is possible, and most likely cheaper, to provide base load with renewables, batteries and a smart grid. If I remember correctly when I read the IRP the reason given for putting in some coal fired stations capacity was to “retain the skills” – not because of baseload requirements. In any event the IRP was written in 2019, which means it was done with knowledge of the state of the world in around 2018. Today’s world changes fast. That was before the Hornsdale big battery, which is now small in comparison to what is being implemented – batteries on the GWh scale. In places they are replacing gas plants with renewables and batteries. You are proposing that SA ties itself back to the dinosaur technologies again. We have wind with a high diversity factor and some of the best solar in the world, it is daft to build new coal power stations. Not to mention that global warming is a major issue and we will be penalised in trade with other countries if we do not decarbonise.

    • Sadly, the smart grid is going no where in RSA because Engineer won’t make the effort to step in to the future. How many Engineers understand a single thing about IEEE 11547 for example ? Anyone ?

  • Well said Avuyile, there is now way that solar and wind power can provide the type of baseload that this country requires if it is to go forward with engineering and technology, especially as we are now expected to move into a Global Cooling cycle.
    And nobody consideers the environmental disaster that is awaiting the future generations from discarded wind turbine blades.

    • Discarded blades can be recycled, however they are a fraction of the total composite waste stream, which results with companies at this stage, not investing in equipment for recycling composites.
      All that is required are markets for recycled composites. The cement industry is one area where composites can be used.

  • Just a totally normal day for the DMRE when senior officials say we must “suppress” the voices of civil society and listen only to the DMRE’s chosen engineers who support their polluting program. So when it comes to energy, mining affected communities should have no say? Youth whose future is being condemned to climate chaos by their polluting agenda, have no say? Workers who are calling a just transition should have no say?

    Even if we grant the dubious point that only engineers should be allowed to weigh in, there are many energy and engineering experts who show that renewable energy future is the most affordable, reliable & job-creating energy future for South Africa and would be better at providing reliable energy than the shambles of an energy system that DMRE is presiding over. The Council of Scientific & Industrial Research for example, and many more.

    As usual the DMRE uses the IRP 2019 as it’s shield against criticism. Yet they fails to mention that they are required to update it every 2 years and did not do so this year, thus failing to meet what is required of them. They fail to mention that it is based on flawed, outdated, and erroneous assumptions which will end up costing South Africa tens if not hundreds of billions more than a more renewable energy future would, while making our energy more polluting, expensive, & unreliable.

  • I’m amazed this piece passed editorial/ logic muster. Given the well-known facts briefly accommodated in the comments above – this piece is bizarre. God help the DMRE if this is their articulation/ justification of the status quo.

    • I agree that “this piece is bizarre” and if this is the level of “expertise” in the DMRE then no wonder this department is such a disaster.

  • Thank you for this. I’m amazed to see this point of view in a publication usually obsessed with the “Our Burning Planet” drivel. To think that it is possible to provide base load with renewables, batteries and a smart grid is pure madness – not even pie-in-the-sky.

    • Franz :

      Where the tide turns is that while it is unlikely we will see our entire grid on renewables and storage (the load profile of all the non-paying or subsidised users is the problem), that picture is entirely different for the microgrids of individual users.

      Many businesses have load profiles that are massively biased to daytime. It is entirely feasible, technically and financially, to go from MW scale peak demand and many GWh per year grid supply to fractions of each with a private smartgrid. Talking about drop peak grid demand by 80% and annual GWh by 90%

      When 1000 businesses (small to medium) do what I’m going to, we represent a million households’ worth of reduction in demand and energy.

      Eskom will end up running coal for a peak demand only in early mornings and early evening, for uneconomic consumers and three-shift businesses. Unless it can scale up gas and pumped storage, that game ends very badly.

  • Although Mr. Avuyile Xabadiya writes in own capacity, I am struck that he seems to be singing for his supper!!
    The global energy environment is moving very quickly to establish more economically viable, ecologically safe and sensible alternatives to coal powered base load power stations.
    I agree that we cannot abandon coal right now, and that the communities living in the areas of the coal power stations needs will need to be addressed.
    However new power stations must use the best of new thinking and technology. Coal is very much yesterdays hero.

  • It will be very hard if not impossible to supply baseload in South Africa from solar and wind + storage. There are just not enough storage solutions and raw materials remain a huge problem as South Africa would need to compete on a global basis to get the raw materials (let alone the huge carbon footprint mining, refining and manufacturing those raw materials into products has). Sadly we are stuck with coal for a while yet. I’m hoping that the new modular small nuclear reactors (especially molten salt reactors) will come to the rescue in 10 years time. There are many companies exploring new designs of intransigently safe nuclear reactors that will work with renewables, make no pollution and have short lived waste that can be safely treated and kept out of the environment. These reactors can be manufactured in factories at a fraction of the cost of a large light water reactor. With abundant safe nuclear coexisting with renewables we will be able to desalinise water, recycle plastics and other materials and improve the lives and the environment.

  • It is heartening to see a DMRE official affirm that this government takes the advice of engineers seriously. Many of us in the engineering profession have not experienced much of this to date. South Africa does need it! But, Mr Xabadiya, as an economist, please do not step onto engineering turf by proclaiming that a future grid needs ‘baseload’. We are having our debates on this amongst engineers. We see how deep flexible generation systems are penetrating into other grids that do remain stable without load-shedding. We see how fast prices for big batteries are dropping. Right now, South Africa does not need to procure a new coal-fired power station. Prof Harro von Blottnitz (Pr.Eng.)

    • Thanks Harro, well said. Engineers can make anything work at a price. The 100% renewable grid needs much work if it to work well, and random #BaseLoadists don’t help with the simplistically silly discussion. If anything , we need to talk about the other side of the balance – we need more demand response, we need more energy flexibility, we need more MicroGrids to support the community and the local feeders.
      … and we need to empower our next-generation of young Electrical Engineers to step forward and make it all work. A polite reminder – South African Electrical Engineers have a fundamental duty to put the Public and Country first.

  • Dear Avuyile Xabadiya

    I graduated with a Masters degree in Electrical Engineering from Wits in 1983. After working in the private sector on the Ratel SCADA control system, the computer control system that controls electricity supply in Gauteng I moved to modelling energy and power systems and energy policy work in 1991 and have done that since then.

    Your article is misleading and devoid of any substantial information to back up your false claims.

    Instead, the very well documented reality is that the DMRE is ignoring the results of professional engineers at the statutory body CSIR specifically set up and funded to provide national research and information and the independent and internationally acclaimed and peer-reviewed work done by engineers and scientists at UCT and Stellenbosch University.

    I will happily debate in public, if properly facilitated, with you the issues you raise about firstly the results of research done by engineers on what you call baseload and secondly how the DMRE is acting with reference to the results of high quality public domain research and analysis of the SA energy system.

    Regards
    Hilton Trollip MSc (Electrical Engineering) Wits 1983

    • Hilton, please note – not all Engineers at the CSIR or the Universities speak with one voice. Also note, South African Electrical Engineers and no where to be found among the numerous IEEE Workgroups that are shaping the world new energy future. Why are we so far behind ?

  • A smell a tinge of “blame the whitey” in this article, in fact more than tinge. As for our “democratic” government minsters , they are mostly unqualified buffoons. The crisis at Eskom is of the ANC’s own making. As for a culture of mediocracy take a good look around. Really poorly written and thought out.

    • Comparing discarded wind turbine blades to spent nuclear fuel, or to decommissioned coal mines?? Come off it.
      DSM – reducing energy needs – is also sadly missing from many of these discussions.
      Renewables can’t cover ALL base load … this is old either-or mindset. A diversity of sources can do it … and engineers can design it. Not biased politicians …

  • We need to step out beyond on the #BaseLoadist construct ( We are all baseloadists at heart, but #BaseLoadism can be cured ! ) So, lets talk Microgrids rather – Microgrids are NOT about going “off-grid”

    A stable Grid is a sign of an advanced civilisation. Grid defection is societally inefficient and we must reject elitist isolation. We should therefore rather seek beneficial coexistence WITH our grid. We must be Good Grid Citizens. Strong Grid = Strong Nation !

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