What a relief! The Department of Minerals and Energy has just released its plan for South Africas electricity supply until the year 2050. This is the Integrated Resource Plan 2023(IRP 2023),drawn up last year. The last such plan, IRP 2019, was nonsense, based on a fantasy world. This one is measured and sober, based on the real world. It gives one some hope for the awful state of our present electricity supply, but it does not deny the formidable problems ahead.

Let me explain about the real world and the fantasy world for electricity supply. The fantasy world is about what should be rather than what is; it is about computer models and wishful projections rather than reality. 

The heaven in the green fantasy world is “renewables’, meaning solar and wind. The true green believers feel that because sunlight and wind are free, they can somehow be made to produce reliable grid electricity that is free, or at least affordable – which is of course physically impossible. 

The hell in the green fantasy world is nuclear, which has shown time and time again that it can provide cheap, reliable, safe, clean electricity. The key word in the previous sentence is can. France showed that nuclear could produce cheap, reliable, plentiful grid electricity. Then France stumbled for reasons of politics and bad management, and French nuclear has faltered in recent years. (It is staging a determined recovery.) 

Solar and wind cannot ever provide cheap, reliable grid electricity, however wonderful their management and engineering. Because the electricity leaving the solar panel or the wind turbine is so intermittent, unreliable and seldom available, it costs a fortune to make it reliable (with standby generators, spinning reserve, extra transmission, extra controls, storage, compensation for loss of inertia, and so on.) This is why, all around the world, whenever solar and wind are used on a large scale, the final prices of electricity soar and electrical failures increase. In IRP 2019, the “least cost” option was solar and wind, which is in fact the greatest cost option. IRP 2019 was a green fantasy.

I am not sure what powers the IRP has. It seems to be just a guide, a series of suggestions about our future electricity supply. As far as I can see, when interested parties want to build a new power station of whatever energy source, they look at the IRP for guidance, and then approach the minister of minerals and energy (or whoever is the responsible minister) and ask for a Section 34 Determination, which authorises such a build. The minister consults the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA), and then approves of the Determination or does not. There are some areas of vagueness in the process, notably about Independent Power Producers (IPPs).

IRP 2023 deals with the present state of Eskom’s power stations (poor) and measures needed to improve them. It considers future electricity demand and our likely shortfall in meeting it for the next years. It looks at the state of our transmission system (the system that brings electricity from the power stations to centres of demand, where it is distributed to users). 

And it discusses future energy options for electricity supply and storage. It uses two horizons: Horizon 1 is from now until 2030, Horizon 2 is from 2031 to 2050. It considers coal, gas, nuclear, wind, solar, storage, and others. 

Unfortunately, it makes endless reference to the unscientific nonsense of dangerous manmade climate change from rising CO2. Actually, as we can see over hundreds of millions of years, CO2 has never had any effect on the climate (it only captures heat up to about 150 ppm, and the Earth’s CO2 has always been above that). But rising CO2 has a wonderful effect on plants. I do not know whether the energy department believes the climate alarm nonsense, but it is the prevailing superstition of the ruling establishment and cannot be ignored.

Of the possible energy options, nuclear is best, but it would take about ten years to bring on a new nuclear plant. Coal has served us well, but it is dirty and can only be sited near the coalfields, which are all in the northeast of the country. Because of Eskom’s neglect, our coal stations are in bad repair and their Energy Availability Factor (EAF), the percentage of their capacity that is available for generation, is horribly low. However, IRP 2023 rightly wants to extend the lives of those that can be extended. 

Gas is an excellent way of generating electricity: the power stations are cheap and can be built in a short time; they can be ramped up and down quickly to match changes in demand. The problem is the gas. South Africa has very little and would have to rely on a volatile world gas market. We would also need expensive infrastructure for large-scale gas supply. 

Solar and wind are useless for grid electricity. In South Africa, which has good solar and wind conditions, our Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme (REIPPPP), which began supplying electricity in 2013, has been a great success in its procurement but a dismal failure for supplying reliable electricity. It has been very expensive, as all solar and wind programmes always are. (Usually the junk electricity leaving the wind turbine or the solar panel is quite cheap but making it useful is exceedingly expensive; in South Africa even the junk electricity was at first very expensive.) The ideal new solar and wind capacity for our grid is 0 MW. 

The only successful way of storing energy for making electricity is pumped storage. Given that South Africa is a dry and parched land, we have made a success of the small capacity for pumped storage that we have. Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) – a fancy term for batteries – are strictly limited and will never be appropriate for storing useful amounts of grid electricity. Progress in batteries over the last 150 years has been glacial. Moreover, they require toxic materials which remain dangerous for millions of years, and mining for them can be environmentally damaging.

There are only six years until 2030, so Horizon 1 has limited scope for new generation. The two new coal units coming on, 800 MW each, are the units remaining to be completed at Kusile Power Station. 

I was very interested to see that there will be only one new unit of Concentrated Solar Power (CSP), of 100 MW capacity. CSP with storage (heat stored as molten liquid) is the only solar and wind technology that can provide useful electricity or dispatchable electricity (electricity when you want it). Our CSP units are built in the Northern Cape, with very good solar conditions (and very low electricity demand). However, the price of this solar electricity is very high, over 500 cents/kWh at peak times, and it seems no more CSPs will be built here. 

Altogether there will probably be 7,220 more MW of gas, 3,615 of solar photovoltaic (panels converting sunlight directly into electricity), 4,468 wind, 3,743 BESS and 6,300 distributed (electricity for own use). It is estimated there will be 13,060 GWh of unserved electricity (shortfall) in 2024 (this year) but that this will progressively reduce in following years.

In other words, Horizon 1 is a bit too optimistic and adds far too much solar and wind, but is reasonably sensible given the political constraints.

Horizon 2, 2031 to 2050, gives five possible energy mix pathways. The choice of new electricity technologies and strategies will be selected from a combination of these pathways. No 1 is a least-cost option, 2 is renewable energy and storage, 3 renewable energy and nuclear, 4 delayed shutdown of coal stations, and 5 is clean coal. The last seems to mean extra measures and new technologies, such as fluidised beds, to reduce sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions and smoke. Thank goodness there is no mention of carbon capture, an expensive nightmare, doing no good whatsoever.

There is an interesting discussion for each option about its costs, security of supply, and ability to reduce CO2. This passage struck me: ‘…it is evident that the energy pathways based on renewable energy and clean energy technologies only deliver the desired outcome as far as decarbonising the power system. However, these pathways do not provide security of supply while carrying the highest cost to implement’. In other words, solar and wind can reduce CO2 emissions but are very expensive and provide no security of supply. That’s true. However, it is not true that nuclear, although obviously much cheaper than wind and solar, is still not the cheapest option. In the long term I think it is, and I can demonstrate this.

Gas is the most flexible technology in that gas generators can be started up quickly and can follow load easily. They would be able to accommodate the violent ups and downs and absences of wind and solar. But in a wind, solar and gas mixture most of the energy supplied would come from the gas, so you may as well just have gas. Gas stations can be built next to centres of demand. 

The best solar conditions are in the remote regions of the Northern Cape, hundreds of kilometres from centres of demand. Wind has a similar problem. To accommodate the expensive, unreliable solar and wind, we would have to spend hundreds of billions of rands on new transmission lines, which we would not need if we just used coal, nuclear and gas. It would be an utter waste of money. Nuclear can follow load, but not nearly as quickly and steeply as gas. An ideal option would be nuclear for baseload with gas for peaking.

Successful electricity supply is only possible with the right technology and the right politics, regulation and management. Solar and wind have the wrong technology (because of the facts of nature) and no good politics and good management can ever make them succeed. Nuclear has the right technology, and works with the right politics and management but can fail without them. 

Perhaps the world’s most dramatic example of this is Germany. Germany, since about 1870, has had one of the world’s most dynamic, inventive, efficient, productive, prosperous economies in the world, led by its superb industries and manufacturing. It was the powerhouse of Europe for decades, the strongest economy in Europe. 

But now it is sick. It was the only G7 economy to shrink in 2023. Its exports are faltering. There is huge discontent and protest. The main reason is Germany’s energy policy. Germany, like all modern, industrialised countries depends on plentiful, reliable, affordable electricity, which is exactly what she had before 2011. Her best electricity came from her excellent nuclear power stations. 

Then in a fit of madness following the Fukushima nuclear accident (when nobody was harmed by the radioactive release), Germany decided to phase out nuclear and replace it with solar and wind. She spent hundreds of billions of Euros installing tens of thousands of gigantic wind turbines and enormous solar arrays. The result was disastrous. Electricity prices soared so high that they shut down industries and drove many German people into energy poverty. Germany now has about the most expensive electricity in Europe. Her economy is failing because of it.

South Africa is another example, if rather different. Before 1990, we had the cheapest electricity in the world and plenty of it. Eskom managed its debts easily and responsibly without ever asking for government help. Under the useless and corrupt ANC administration, with exactly the same electricity technologies, we have blackouts nearly all the time and Eskom is under colossal debt, which it cannot repay. Our industries are shutting down and our economy is crippled because of this.

IRP 2023 is not a magic wand, and does not pretend to be. It was under great restraints both because of the dire state of Eskom and because of intense ideological and political pressure to conform to the prevailing nonsense of climate alarm and green energy. It does not point out the advantages of nuclear nearly strongly enough. But it contains a streak of honesty and good sense in our energy policy that was lacking before. It invites policymakers to think carefully about the options. It is encouraging. It is a good new start.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

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Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal.