The Dance of Nuclear, Coal, & Renewables in South Africa

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Regular CleanTechnica readers should know that Elon Musk was born in South Africa and only left for Canada when he finished high school. Does Tesla have a presence in his birth country? As far as I know, there is one Tesla employee who is promoting battery storage, which is sorely needed in a country with frequent blackouts. South Africa, as a former British colony, is a right-hand drive country and Musk has said that Tesla would open a store and begin sending Model3s there by the end of this year. There are many wealthy people in South Africa, and with Musk having “hero” status there, it ought to be a good market for Tesla cars, potentially the biggest in Africa.

South Africa has the most mining and industry of any country in Africa and consequently needs the largest amount of electricity – 54,400 megawatts. This can be broken down as follows:

Type Capacity [MW] Percent
Coal 40,036 73.6%
Gas turbine 3,449 6.3%
Hydro 3,573 6.6%
Wind 2,096 3.9%
Nuclear 1,860 3.4%
Solar PV 1,479 2.7%
Solar Concentrated 400 0.7%
Landfill gas 7.5
Imported Hydro 1,500 2.8%

Nuclear accounts for 3.4% of power capacity in South Africa, thermal energy sources 79.9%, and renewable sources 16.7% (hydro alone is 9.4%).

Image via World Nuclear Association

Nuclear Power: South Africa has two nuclear power plants in Koeberg near Capetown. Each unit produces 830 MW of power. The first was commissioned in 1984 and the second in 1985. Their closure dates are 2024 and 2025, although there are already attempts to keep them open longer than their 40 year lifespan.

The real story, the dance of nuclear power, began in 2010 when South Africa planned to build 8 more nuclear reactors for 9600 MW of additional energy at Koeberg and Thyspunt. These were projected to come online between 2024 and 2030. At different times, the United States, Russia, France, China, and South Korea were involved in negotiations. In March 2017, when the Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, opposed these new nuclear plants because South Africa could not afford the costs, he was fired by then President Jacob Zuma and replaced with a minister who approved the projects. Due to major corruption scandals, including the nuclear power projects, President Zuma was ousted on February 18, 2018. Zuma’s replacement, Cyril Ramaphosa, immediately canceled the nuclear projects until 2030. By that time, I am sure nuclear power will be seen as obsolete, like the horse and buggy is today.

There is another important side issue to the two nuclear power plants in operation. From mid-2017 through mid-2018, Capetown and the surrounding communities where the nuclear power plants are sited almost ran out of water, as the reservoirs were falling below 30% of capacity. Not only were restrictions placed on washing cars, watering lawns, and filling swimming pools, the water people did receive was rationed. “Day Zero” was announced when the city would run out of water. Since people cut their consumption by more than half, the day was postponed a number of times. Strong rains in June 2018 ended the crisis. Nonetheless, Capetown residents are restricted to 105 liters (26 gallons) of water per person per day. The issue was that the two nuclear power plants were using lots of scarce water. They have now been required to install ocean desalination plants for their water requirements.

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Coal: South Africa has the seventh highest coal reserves in the world. In 2018, it exported $6.2 billion of coal, mostly to China, Japan, and India. Yet in 2008, 2015, and 2018, South Africa had “load shedding,” planned rolling backouts where parts of the country are routinely without power on a scheduled basis. This was because, due to mismanagement and corruption in Eskom, the public electricity utility, South Africa’s power stations were short of coal. South Africa has 17 coal-fired plants in operation producing 40,036 MW of electricity. Electric consumption has been flat or declining slightly in the last decade.

One of the problems with these coal plants is that many are old, needing repairs, and expensive to operate. In the next five years, two coal plants with 3,454 MW of capacity are scheduled to be retired, while from 2025 to 2030 seven coal plants with 7,822 MW of capacity are scheduled to be retired. There are two coal plants under construction for 6,800 MW of additional capacity, but they are already years behind schedule at substantially increased costs. The question then is, “Will renewable energy be able to fill the electricity deficit in the country?”

138 MW Gouda Wind Farm, via Acciona

Renewables: South Africa has 2,096 MW of wind power currently providing electricity, 400 MW of concentrated solar power, and 1,479 MW of solar PV. This totals 3,975 MW or 7.3% of the total electric generation capacity.

What is most interesting is that as soon as the new Ramphosa government canceled the nuclear power plants, the government approved thousands of MW of renewable power. These included 2,097 MW of wind power, 200 MW of concentrated solar, and 1,094 of solar PV, totaling 3,391 MW of additional renewable energy. This will almost double the amount of wind/solar power in the next few years.

South Africa has a plan for energy projection to 2030. The additional generating capacity by that time would be 9.5 GW of wind, 6.8 GW of solar, 6.7 GW of coal, and 2.5 GW of hydropower. This, therefore, assumes that the two coal plants now under construction will be completed, but no more coal plants will be built. Hurrah!

Nonetheless, the 2030 projections still indicate that coal will provide 64% of the electricity produced. Wind would then be 13%, solar 8%, nuclear 4%, hydropower 3%, and gas 1%. This implies that the lifespan of the two current nuclear plants will be extended beyond their expiration date.

Over the next eleven years, even with the phaseout of 11,276 MW of coal capacity, the use of coal will decline by less that 10%. With the price of wind and solar declining each year, these goals seem to be without sufficient ambition. Boo! South Africa ought to do better than this.

Related Story: The Best Summary Of Kenya Renewable Energy (& Dirty Energy) You Can Find

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