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Energy baseload options: Barricading oneself behind ‘the engineers’ is a worn-out line of defence

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Chris Butters is a Cape Town-born Norwegian citizen and has been leading an international postgraduate programme on energy and environment for 40 years at the University of Oslo, educating highly qualified participants from 120 countries. He is a widely travelled consultant, lecturer and the author or co-author of 12 books and many scientific articles.

There is worldwide recognition that energy is not a technical field but a sociotechnical one. Describing NGOs and civil society as ‘stumbling blocks’, as Avuyile Xabadiya does, is both arrogant and sadly misplaced.

Avuyile Xabadiya’s Opinionista article “A drastic shift from coal baseload supply is not an option for South Africa” (Daily Maverick, 1 December 2021) is pretty staggering stuff from our Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (even if he does write “in his personal capacity”). The swipe at NGOs, sociologists and other non-engineers is an intolerant digression from the issue of energy baseload itself, and is crowned by his call for “suppression of the voice of non-engineers”… which Soviet did you grow up in, sir?

I have about 40 years of experience from many countries – and in particular from leading international university courses at postgraduate level, in Norway – on the topic of energy planning and sustainable development. I am not in favour of nuclear, not least due to the risks of corruption and mismanagement, but above all it is simply very expensive and far from the cheapest alternative now. Mr Xabadiya’s article contains much complaining and accusing, but no discussion at all of actual baseload options. He waves the “engineering” flag, using it more like a whip, but fails to mention engineering alternatives. A few brief points:

  • Forget clean coal. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is still hugely expensive and can only function for major point sources of emissions, in suitable geological regions – hence could in any case only provide under 10% of the “carbon solution” (World Bank figure);
  • We have coal and not gas, but if the world wishes to help move us off coal then gas might play a limited role, since gas is generally far less damaging than coal, as an intermediate step in the process towards low or zero net carbon;
  • Wind and solar are quite well matched seasonally in South Africa – most wind in winter when demand is highest, but also sunny winters in some areas, making Gauteng, for example, ideal for passive solar buildings; hence on an annual cycle these too can to some degree help to reduce baseload;
  • With both wind and solar it may in time be economical to produce hydrogen, which can be stored and hence be part of baseload;
  • Mr Xabadiya’s energy views seem to contain not a word about energy efficiency and energy conservation (those two are not at all the same thing). Reduction of the energy demand is often cheaper than building new power capacity – and also creates far more jobs. For sure, energy efficiency programmes are being implemented, but seen in the global perspective, demand-side reductions are still hugely underfocused and underfunded. Including in our ministry;
  • Not least, there is a huge potential in the field of bioenergy. In many regions, energy crops can be grown on a very large scale that do NOT compete with food production (as ethanol-to-gasoline often does in the USA). There is also marine biomass potential. The point here being that bioenergy is – like firewood – storable and hence can form part of a baseload. Many bioenergy solutions are combined heat and power (CHP). Hence, in some countries, bioenergy in its many forms could stand for a large part of future baseload. This is one of the only ways to phase out storable fossil fuels completely. But curiously, the government’s bioeconomy publications make almost no mention of bioenergy;
  • Bioeconomy is one of today’s global buzzwords, but this does not seem to have penetrated our energy ministry. The bioeconomy includes energy, but equally, new industrial products such as biopolymers. These are already replacing plastics in everything from mobile phones to building materials to motor car parts. This does require a policy where the industrial products and the energy are produced in an integrated way; and
  • The bioeconomy offers a potential for creating thousands of green jobs – something Cyril Ramaphosa is perhaps more focused on than Gwede Mantashe. Nuclear doesn’t. Nor does fracking, nor does coal mining as it becomes increasingly automated. What can we offer our coal miners for the future? An interesting point about bioeconomy jobs, for South Africa, is that they are regionally spread out and many do not require high levels of skills.

Finally, Mr Xabadiya does not seem to be up to date. There is worldwide recognition that energy is NOT a technical field but a sociotechnical one. Describing NGOs and civil society as “stumbling blocks” is both arrogant and sadly misplaced. Of course, there are a few raving irrationalists – but I know a few engineers who are raving irrationalists too. Barricading oneself behind “the engineers” or “the technicalities” is a very well-known and worn-out line of defence. Or it could be called bullying.

And, as to those who mischievously use the courts… well, let’s hope the courts won’t be needed when our energy ministry gets its hands on all the loot being offered to South Africa to get off coal…

So, let’s stop pointing fingers and talk sustainable, job-friendly, people-friendly, NGO-friendly energy futures, including various baseload options please. DM

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All Comments 14

  • Imagine going through the immense effort of completely rebuilding our South African energy systems, but not taking care of #EnergyPoverty. What a massive societal failure that would be.

    A #JustEnergyTransition is NOT about commerce exploiting a South Africa caught between a Rock & a Hard Place – its about empowering every South Africa so that ALL can profit from self-generation, self-consumption, and can buy&sell #GreenElectrons on an open energy market.

    Also, #REIPPP as it has been is neither fair nor just. Further the IRP is deeply flawed and needs immediate revisions to include rooftop solar and offshore wind – AND Demand Response & Energy Flexibility

    Lets get to it

    • The future has changed

      Those that can and have the right combination of load profile and space, are reducing their grid reliance at a massive rate. The grid is too expensive and unreliable.

      I can do the math and it absolutely makes economic sense regardless of bunny hugger sentiments. We are not leaving the grid entirely but we are going smart-grid. (small grid connection, lots of solar, some batteries, plus generator). I will go from 300kVA peak demand and over 1GWh to 50kVA and less than 250MWh per year. That saves me almost R2m per year at current tariffs.

      Eskom’s annual kWh generated did not decline the past few years only due to loadshedding and a weak economy. People are making their own plans and that reality is not factored into the models. Big users are slashing their peak demand and annual MWh and they are not coming back into the revenue pool ever.

  • A great article, now how to get our government decision-makers to read it and understand that we have a huge opportunity to create “decent” jobs, reduce energy costs, improve energy security and win global friends and lots of loot?

    • Just because the author forgot to put in the ‘purely’ technical in his article does not entitle you to be dismissive of the perspective raised ! It encourages the kind of attitude the original article he was critiquing raised.

    • Franz:

      I get ‘technical’ pooh-pooh often about how solar is so unreliable and batteries so expensive. I know what the grid is costing me, what my load profile is and what solar actually delivers to within 95% accuracy per month. It is now feasible to go hybrid : small 50kVA grid (to run low overnight loads), 500kVA solar and 3h batteries backed up with a generator I anyway have and I am effectively a very big UPS at cheaper than current grid. Add in three increases of 15% to 20% and my cost is half what grid would cost.

      In illustration of where techncial has fallen behind with our insane tariff structures : if I must run my generators for 50h a month (very unlikely) as backup to the solar and batteries and small grid connection, it is still half the cost of what the avoided 250kVA costs me.

      Coal energy supplied by Eskom and council has lost the financial race!

  • All the authors comments: “CCS is hugely expensive”; “Wind and solar are well matched”; “economical to produce hydrogen”; “Energy demand management”; “Bio-energy solutions” are all based on engineering assessments. If not they should be. So what is the author trying to say? Whoever you are: an Engineer; a Social Scientist or a Politician if you ignore base load you do so at your peril. We have to spend money and a great deal of money now or Eskom will indeed collapse and South Africa will plunge into darkness. Let us forget egos and deal with reality!

  • I drove from Cape Town back to George at night a few weeks ago. Most towns and cities – starting from CT when going up Sir Lowrys Pass and looking back over the Cape flats, to Caledon, Riversonderend, Swellendam, Heidelberg, Riversdale, Albertinia, Mosselbay and into George – ALL have far too many lights burning. So many big neon advert lights. Why? I reckon all of SA could use half or less the lights we really need. My house (and farm) is on (mostly) solar power. We only have lights on in the rooms we are occupying. Demand reduction is a major area that should be targeted.

  • It seems the world ‘leadership’ is waiting for ‘nature’ to take care of our ‘mistakes’ with floods, fires, hurricanes and other disasters !

    • Re the dismissive comment to “read no further”, to be precise I should have written “energy is not solely a technical …”. The point is that energy solutions are very dependent on social, political and cultural factors. A solution that works in Kenya may not be a success in Brazil or Japan. This is because the way people understand, use, and manage energy varies very widely. A consideration against nuclear in South Africa is the risk of bad procurement and monitoring: faulty welding by an incompetent contractor on a coal plant (uh, Medupi …) may prove to be expensive and cause a few deaths, but at nuclear Koeberg it could mean the evacuation of Capetown for 200 years. In Japan it’s socially obligatory to have an air conditioner because mum-in-law might visit … even if it is climatically unnecessary. Norwegians leave lights on all day for similar reasons which are purely cultural. In Sri Lanka there has been suspicion that solar PV panels cause disease. In some African regions the cooking fire is so traditional that they won’t adopt hugely energy saving stoves even when they have to walk 3 hours daily in order to find the last firewood.
      International authors include Elizabeth Shove, Benjamin Sovacool or my late colleague Hal Wilhite. For sustainable and culturally appropriate energy solutions, an Energy Ministry MUST have sociological and cultural expertise … in addition to excellent engineers; and broad minded economists.

  • Please, you are too hard on poor Avuyile Xabadiya. The bloke must listen to Gwede’s mumbling all day. At least he made Gwede’s mumbling more clear to us. We may not agree with it, but at least we now can read it. I look forward to Avuyile keeping us informed about what his misinformed boss in mumbling about.