15:18 GMT29 October 2020
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    South Africa's ANC government has pledged to add 11.8 gigawatts of generating capacity to the national grid with an emphasis on renewable energy. But two new high-tech coal-fired power stations are set to generate 9.6 GW in the next two years, while the potential of nuclear power remains largely untapped.

    South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has vowed to press on with a switch to private-sector renewable energy and the "restructuring" of state-owned electricity firm ESKOM.

    That is despite the ongoing crisis of frequent planned power cuts and opposition from labour movement allies of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

    In a letter to the nation published on Monday, Ramaphosa acknowledged that the "load-shedding" schedule of power cuts that returned after he took over prematurely from predecessor Jacob Zuma "imposes very high costs on our economy."

    But rather than build a new generation of power stations to burn South Africa's abundant coal reserves, he has insisted that smaller, private-sector independent power producers (IPPs) making renewable energy was the way forward.

    "Reliable, secure and affordable energy supply is the lifeblood of any economy," Ramaphosa said, but added "to limit the impact of climate change, it is equally important that energy is sustainable and environmentally-sound."

    The president said the pledge of 11.8 gigawatts of extra generating capacity over the existing 30 GW, made in his state of the nation address in February, "will be procured from diverse sources, including solar, wind, gas, coal and storage."

    Ramaphosa insisted that buying more energy from private providers would "attract greater investment in energy and create much-needed jobs, and spur business development and localisation," especially in the renewable and gas sectors. However, most of the IPPs benefitting from new contracts signed since his inauguration in 2018 are foreign-owned.

    In August, ESKOM issued a tender for a battery energy storage system (BESS) of at least 80 megawatts capacity - which would provide less than one per cent of the planned increase. Renewables accounted for less than three per cent of total capacity last year.

    But conspicuously absent from Ramaphosa's list was nuclear power, which currently provides 2 GW of electricity from the Koeberg power station north of Cape Town

    After Zuma was ousted by a vote of the ANC's national executive in 2018, Ramaphosa's government cancelled a tender for eight planned nuclear power stations with a combined generating capacity of 9.6 GW, for which Russian state atomic energy firm Rosatom was in the running.

    Earlier this month, a group of six professional associations in the South African atomic energy industry urged the government to build a new 2 GW light water reactor and several 500MW small modular reactors (SMRs), which they said could replace aging coal-fired plants reaching the ends of their service lives between 2025 and 2030.

    The construction of two new high-efficiency power stations with a projected capacity of 4.8 GW each, christened Mepudi and Kusile, has been hit by repeated delays and may not be online until 2022. Kusile will be South Africa's first power station to employ flue-gas desulfurization (FGD) 'clean coal' technology. 

    Most worrying for trade unions, including the ANC's allies in the COSATU federation, was Ramaphosa's pledge of "regulatory reforms" in the power industry and "restructuring" of ESKOM - potentially resurrecting fears that the state-owned enterprise could be broken up and privatised.

    Ramaphosa, a lawyer by trade, is a former general secretary of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers, which has opposed any break-up of ESKOM.

    "We are working to restore Eskom’s operational capabilities and restructure Eskom to fundamentally change the way in which we generate and transmit electricity in our country," he said, stressing that since February separate boards had been appointed to run ESKOM's generation, transmission and distribution divisions.

    Ramaphosa has admitted that local governments in poor districts have had problems with collecting electricity bills and paying ESKOM, which almost bankrupted the utility in 2019.  

    But he insisted that regulatory reforms would include "amendments to regulations that would enable municipalities in good standing to procure their own power from independent power producers" - potentially allowing rich areas to avoid the power cuts suffered by the rest of the country.

    South Africa is the continent's wealthiest nation and a member of the BRICS bloc of emerging economies. Coal and precious metals mining remains the backbone of the economy.

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    coal, atomic energy, Nuclear Power, renewable energy, Jacob Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa
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