Forbes expert reviews South African plan for energy development
South Africa Ready For Low-Carbon Energy Production With New Nuclear And More Renewables
This is not a simple move. Generation of electricity in South Africa is overwhelmingly dominated by coal, particularly low-grade coal, and the country uses coal to generate a third of its liquid fuels as well. Over 90% of electricity comes from coal, with only 3% from nuclear, 3% from natural gas and 2% combined from conventional and pumped hydroelectric.
Despite a very successful Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Program (REIPPP), which has resulted in 79 projects being commissioned since 2011, renewables still make up less than 2% of electricity generation.
Fighting over nuclear and renewables has gummed up what should be a promising low-carbon future. Both sides fail to realize that the country needs both energy sources, and at higher levels than either understand.
South Africa is one of the top ten producers of coal worldwide and is one of the leading coal export nations. Since the government expects coal use to increase in the coming decade before it can decrease, it has an ambitious commitment to addressing climate change through a determined effort to implement a carbon tax, to replace its aging coal fleet with nuclear, renewables, and new coal plants outfitted with carbon capture and storage.
Energy in South Africa is governed by two policies — the over-arching Integrated Energy Plan (DOE, 2013) and the Integrated Resources Plan (IRP, 2010). The IRP is a roadmap for the development of new generation sources that is a compromise among cost, job creation and mitigating climate change.
The IRP 2010 (see figure) plan is ambitious, calling for an additional 9.6 GW of nuclear power, 6.3 GW of coal, 17.8 GW of renewable energy, and 8.9 GW from other sources between 2010 and 2030. This plan drops coal from over 90% to 65% of the generation mix over the next thirteen years by 2030.
This is a good plan, given that the leading climate scientists in the world, led by Drs. Jim Hansen, Tom Wigley, Ken Caldeira and Kerry Emanuel, have repeatedly pointed out that we cannot reign in global warming without a significant increase in nuclear as well as renewables.
Like biological systems, diversity in the energy mix is extremely important for long-term survival.
Nuclear power is essential to this goal, and many South Africans agree.
Unfortunately, irrational, but highly vocal, anti-nuke sentiment has been fierce in undermining the climate scientists recommendations, and that could affect the South Africa energy plan.
And if carbon capture does not pan out as hoped, then the need for nuclear will be even greater.
Climate experts understand the essential role of nuclear power in mitigating the worst effects of global warming, as well as the almost total misunderstanding of nuclear by the public. Over the last fifty years, nuclear energy has proven to be the safest and most efficient of all energy sources, from both human health and environmental perspectives.
In total, to produce a trillion kWh of electricity, nuclear takes less land, uses less steel and concrete, has less emissions, kills fewer people, is the most reliable of energy sources, and has lower total life-cycle costs than any other energy source except hydroelectric.
But you have to run them for their whole 60 to 80 year lives to get the full benefits. So long-term planning is essential, and that is just what the IRP is doing.
As an example, America has 62 nuclear power plants with 99 operating reactors having over 100,000 MW of installed capacity that produces 800 billion kWhs of electricity each year — about a fifth of America’s power. In America, these reactors:
- avoid 573 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year (worth $25 billion if priced)
- support 475,000 full-time jobs
- keep retail electricity prices 6% lower compared to energy markets that have no nuclear power
- provide $10 billion in federal revenues, and $2.2 billion in state tax revenues, each year
- avoid emitting 650,000 tons of nitrogen oxide and over one million tons of sulfur dioxide emissions each year which, according to National Academy of Science estimates, is worth about $8.4 billion
- provide over two-thirds of America’s low-carbon energy and have prevented America from putting about 20 billion tons more of CO2 into the atmosphere over the last 40 years
- contribute about $60 billion annually to America’s gross domestic product (GDP) and over $100 billion in gross output.
Nuclear is also the energy source most immune to climatic change itself and to severe weather events in general.
South Africa provides an average of 4,800 kWhs per person per year to its 53 million people, garnering a United Nations Human Development Index score, the measure of quality of life for a population, of only 0.666 out of 1.000. The country needs even more energy, about 150 TWh more, and better distribution, to raise that average quality of life to over 0.800 and reduce poverty levels to less than 10%.
The article was originally published in Forbes.
Dr. James Conca is an expert on energy, nuclear and dirty bombs, a planetary geologist, and a professional speaker. Follow him on Twitter @jimconca and see his book at Amazon.com