An Unenlightened Vision for Energy Security Casts a Pall over Our Future

Renwables are cheaper and cleaner alternative for South Africa's energy crisis.

By Glenn Ashton · 12 May 2015

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Picture: Solar farm courtesty TckTckTck
Picture: Solar farm courtesty TckTckTck

Our most recent round of load shedding, coupled to Eskom’s current application to increase power tariffs by over 25 percent, has raised the level of public anger and frustration with both the national power utility and government. Eskom has now ineluctably demonstrated its incapacity to deliver on its mandate to provide reliable electrical power at a reasonable cost, as set out in its 1923 founding charter.

So how do we meet the collective challenge, as South Africa Inc., to supply reliable electrical power, at reasonable cost, to all our citizens?

It appears that government has been converted to the church of nuclear power as a solution to the crisis, with President Zuma as proselytiser in chief. On the other hand our rollout of renewable energy continues apace, with new solar and wind installations competed at competitive cost, before their due dates, unlike the fiasco that is Medupi.

What does nuclear power offer? Besides the untenable lead-in times to deliver nuclear energy, usually at least 6 years, most observers wonder why we are following this particular path given the well-articulated concerns about the cost of the nuclear option, set out both in the National Development Plan and by the Energy Ministry as recently as 2013.

However Zuma has clearly made up his mind. In February he said, “We know exactly what we need. We are now well informed. We are moving ahead (with nuclear power).” Question is, who has he been informed by? His ear has certainly been well bent by the Russian Rosatom team, who have met several times with government delegations, both before and after Zuma’s mysterious visit to Russia in late 2014.

Shortly after that visit Energy Minister Tina Joematt-Pettersen prematurely indicated a deal had been cut for Rosatom to supply the proposed 9 600 Mw of new nuclear build. However this was subsequently denied, as nuclear co-operation deals with France and China emerged. However Russia still appears to be the chosen saviour to deliver us from darkness via nuclear energy.

This may well revolve around the attractive option of Russia offering to build, own and operate nuclear plants, where they finance the entire operation and sell us power at an agreed rate. Despite the apparent benefits we must carefully consider the published nuclear co-operation agreement which places onerous responsibilities on South Africa - like dealing with a mess if anything does go wrong – while failing to impose adequate reciprocal obligations on Russia if things unravel.

This is a perverse incentive. If the technology is as safe and wonderful as Russia (or any other nuclear vendor) claims, then surely the operators should guarantee and underwrite their products? To burden us with a potential, arms-length Chernobyl appears opportunist, at best.

On the other hand if we choose to finance the programme ourselves the costs seem unaffordable, especially in light of our currency woes, linked directly to Eskom’s failure. Estimated actual costs of new nuclear build run at between R650 billion to a more realistic R1.2 trillion.

This almost unimaginable sum exceeds our entire annual national budget. Pursuing this route will either bankrupt the country, or ensure indebtedness when coupled to enforced structural adjustment programmes by external financial agencies. This would be a sweet option for the developed north, given our unrivalled natural resources, which would be then be open to pillage by the Vikings of international capital.

Even if we choose fully financed build as the Russians prefer, we risk being beholden to the shifting sands of international geo-politics, which may or may not be preferable to the prior option. Whatever the case our sovereignty stands to be irreversibly and inappropriately compromised if we go the big nuke route.

Most importantly we must not lose sight of the reality that nuclear is incapable of solving our existing problem. The extremely long lead times, linked to hectic price escalations as documented by numerous credible analysts such as Charles Komanoff are an anathema.

The bigger the plant the greater the possibility of price inflation, as the French and US have recently found. French nuclear builder, Areva, has seen the costs and construction times of its Flamanville and Okiluto plants more than double in price and build time. Similar time and cost problems have beset the US new build programme in Georgia and Louisiana.

In South Africa we appear incapable of building even a conventional coal plant without massive cost and time overruns, as at Medupi and Kusile. This inspires little confidence that we could expect to deliver nuclear power much before 2030, even if we start the process tomorrow. That is not going to help our present problems that our national and institutional leaders deny are a problem at all. Denial undermines any hope of recognising the existing reality.

Yet there is hope. We are already rolling out new solar and wind energy projects, at no direct cost to our fiscus, with very short time frames, as part of our REFIT/ REIPPPP programme. Yet Eskom struggles to link these projects to the national grid, re-emphasising the need to unbundle the national utility into generating and supply entities. If all of the REFIT bidders had been allowed to construct power plants we could have had the equivalent of at least two Medupi’s well toward completion and grid connection.

Neither are these alternative, sustainable power generation systems expensive. We can already produce solar electricity at less than the rate that most metropolitan municipalities presently charge. REFIT solar is now coming in at less than R1 per unit. The MIT Review recently noted the cost of solar generation in the EU, with far less sunlight than South Africa, is less than R1.50 per unit. The City of Cape Town presently charges customers R1.72, with a proposed rise to R2.25 per unit in June. Add in Eskom’s most recent demand for a 25%+ price escalation this year and the obvious attraction of solar becomes apparent. Nuclear would cost anything from R0.9 to more than R2 per unit.

Wind is even more competitive, with several analyses showing it to be the cheapest available energy source in the US at present, as low as R0.20 per unit. The US market, driven primarily by return on investment, has seen more than one third of new power supply installed since 2009 as wind energy. The problem of intermittent supply has largely been overcome by incredibly accurate weather prediction linked to switching mechanisms that allow the renewable grid to participate in the “just in time” energy supply system.

Naysayers of alternative energy insist that the intermittency and storage of wind and solar power is the major shortcoming. This problem is being addressed beyond the solutions such as home based battery systems as proposed by Elon Musk. We have significant new pumped storage, one of the most efficient energy storage systems available, which could readily be scaled up to absorb excess solar and wind capacity. Numerous other storage systems are emerging, including hydrogen generation through renewable power.

Finally, by accelerating and enabling the adoption of renewable energy systems we can at least allow Eskom a window to service its aging fleet of conventional coal power stations. Coal can be phased out as intermittent back up power, and incrementally transitioned to gas and even hydrogen as renewables eventually dominate the supply system.

We can no longer be told that a sustainable energy supply is not possible. It is not only possible but is a prerogative we cannot overlook. Nuclear is an expensive, inherently risky, long-term play. Coal is no longer an option, not just from the global warming perspective but also from the reality of South Africa’s increasingly precarious reality of our dwindling water supply.

The only remaining option is a concerted shift toward renewables. We know we can, but will we? That depends on whether our leaders recognise the present crisis, which extends way beyond Eskom, to the emerging global climate crisis. Nuclear clearly cannot do it. Renewables can.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Muna Lakhani
16 May

Nuclear Build

Thanks for this - and the average build time for nuclear reactors is more like 10 years...and often longer, with none coming in on budget or on time as originally planned...

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