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Embracing the Complex Role of Coal in South Africa’s Energy Mix

The path to achieving net zero is intricately tied to addressing the challenges posed by coal consumption. Industrialized nations highlight concerns about coal’s environmental impact, given its emissions of various pollutants that contribute to issues like smog and respiratory problems. These emissions encompass a range of substances, including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and lead.

In contrast, coal remains a bountiful and cost-effective energy source, retaining its grip on nations across the globe. This is strikingly true for South Africa, where the very foundations of its grid infrastructure are intertwined with coal. The “State of South African Energy” report by the African Energy Chamber this year underscores the country’s current reliance on coal, accounting for 80% of its electricity generation. For the citizens of South Africa, coal stands as an essential lifeline.

COMMENTARY

Certainly, I grasp the pressing environmental concerns entwined with coal’s utilization. However, these concerns alone should not unilaterally dictate South Africa’s energy trajectory. While a prudent, gradual transition away from coal aligns with the nation’s best interests, an abrupt cessation of coal consumption at this juncture could inflict substantial harm upon both the nation and its populace.

Approaching the crucial role of coal within South Africa requires a pragmatic perspective. While the Chamber’s report envisions a gradual reduction in coal consumption, this transition is set to be both measured and deliberate. It is projected that by 2030, the proportion of coal usage will decrease from the present 80% to approximately 65%, signifying a significant portion of the nation’s power generation landscape. While these figures might raise concerns among environmental advocates, they mirror the practicalities faced by South Africa on a local level.

NJ Ayuk

Although renewable energy sources, including solar PV, solar thermal, onshore wind, hydro, and bioenergy, have commenced their emergence in South Africa, they presently contribute to just 10% of the overall energy mix. The Chamber’s report envisions a noteworthy shift by 2030, with renewables likely accounting for a quarter of total power generation.

Furthermore, coal’s significance in South Africa transcends its role as a mere energy source. It remains a vital industry that, as of 2021, employed nearly 93,000 individuals and contributed 480.9 billion rands to the nation’s GDP.

A Hybrid Approach

While coal holds a place in the energy mix, it’s insufficient to ensure a reliable power supply.

Right now, nearly half of South Africa’s population grapple with energy poverty, enduring inadequate access to power. Complicating matters, South Africa’s energy crisis is now intertwined with the operation of its coal-fired power stations. State-owned utility, Eskom, responsible for generating 90% of the nation’s electricity and 30% of the continent’s total, has struggled to keep pace with surging national energy demands. The country’s aging power plant fleet has been pushed to its limits, resulting in a rapid decline in performance.

Eskom’s 14 coal-fired facilities suffer from a combination of aging infrastructure, poor maintenance and suboptimal design, leaving them either inefficiently operated or in a state of disrepair. Consequently, South Africa contends with a daily energy deficit of approximately 4,000-6,000 MW, roughly equating to 10% of current consumption. The result? Regularly scheduled power cuts, known as “load shedding,” often lasting up to six hours per day or even longer.

The ramifications of unreliable electricity access extend beyond inconvenience for the general populace. These power outages wreak havoc on businesses, undermining the very economic foundation of the nation.

To address this problem, South Africa has been working to shift its energy mix from coal to renewables. However, this shift faces considerable challenges — not the least of which is the fact that a lack of proper energy management means that no viable supply alternatives currently exist.

As the Chamber recently wrote, coal has a crucial role to play in stabilizing the country’s energy sector and business environment. I’m convinced that what South Africa needs at the moment is more coal power generation and the regeneration of existing coal facilities while the country accelerates its renewables and natural gas sectors.

We Must Not Add to the Suffering

That’s why I’m concerned about any transition plans that have South Africa turning away from coal too quickly. For example, as part of the transition away from fossil fuels, Eskom is expected to decommission half of its 45,000 MW installed capacity by 2035. Attempting to protect the environment is a noble pursuit indeed, but Africa’s energy struggles will inevitably get worse if the old coal plants are decommissioned without suitable replacement energy sources in place. And at present, renewables don’t come close to what’s needed.

We hope to see South Africa gradually transfer to renewables, on par with Africa’s COP27 pledge, beginning with natural gas as a “transition fuel” and then moving to onshore wind and photovoltaic power generation by the end of this decade. A just energy transition in South Africa takes into account environmental aspirations, that’s clear. But more importantly, the transition must also eliminate the load-shedding woes that have long prevented energy security.

South Africa needs alternate sources to generate power and grid integration to distribute this power generated via alternate sources to consumers. Continuing to rely this heavily on coal, without more diversified energy generation, is not sustainable. However, prematurely abandoning coal use altogether will only further cripple the economy.

NJ Ayuk is executive chairman of the African Energy Chamber (www.EnergyChamber.org) and author of “A Just Transition: Making Energy Poverty History with an Energy Mix.”