Power hungry: A production line at car parts company Hyundai Mobis in the city of Asan, South Korea, produces twice the power of SA to meet the needs of its vast manufacturing sector. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Power hungry: A production line at car parts company Hyundai Mobis in the city of Asan, South Korea, produces twice the power of SA to meet the needs of its vast manufacturing sector. Picture: BLOOMBERG

SA does not have an oversupply of electricity, despite load shedding coming to an end over the medium term, power being exported and old coal-fired power stations being scheduled for closure. This is the view of Australian environmentalist Ben Heard on a recent visit to SA.

He argues that if 7-million tonnes of wood is being burned a year, if a mother cannot warm her baby’s bottles and a grandmother has to choose between heating her home and cooking, then SA does not have a power supply problem but a distribution problem.

His fresh eyes on our old problems are insightful.

In many ways, we have become used to our inequality and poverty. We cease to see the injustice in plain sight. Arguing that we should increase supply drastically to accommodate the developmental needs of SA is a humane means of saving the environment.

Electricity is not cheap if poor people cannot afford it.

There are issues that SA has to face. Eskom has excess capacity. It has to bring independent power producers into the energy mix. It has to make sure it is financially viable. It also has to maintain base-load supply and cut out the dirty, old coal plants contributing to climate change. The policy and economic constraints imposed on Eskom are quite daunting.

All this is taking place in a socioeconomic context of immense strain. Like water, education and accommodation, electricity is a human right. But it is a right that has to be produced and paid for. It has to be produced in a clean, efficient and cheap manner.

Renewables are definitely sources of clean electricity, but the energy is not cheap to produce and renewables cannot provide base-load power. SA has not reached the stage where the power of wind turbines or photovoltaic solar can be stored economically to be used later.

The nature of electricity is that it has to be used when it is produced. Industry needs power that is reliably supplied and renewables, good as they may be for certain applications, are just not the panacea for SA’s energy problems.

There is a general perception that renewables will tackle poverty by involving many independent players rather than a centralised, monopoly generation by a utility like Eskom.

The argument is quite seductive. However, for the establishment of a robust and reliable power supply, some large-scale development that takes advantage of economies of scale is necessary. It is a bit like arguing that small-scale farmers should replace large-scale farmers to spread the level of participation in agriculture. The advantages of mechanisation that commercial large-scale farmers introduce will be lost. The reality is that there should be room for both small and large-scale farmers.

Similarly, with power production, there is a role to be played by decentralised stand-alone generation, but this cannot replace the need for large-scale production to supply primary, secondary and tertiary industries in urban and rural areas.What SA needs is to reindustrialise the economy by producing more reliable base-load power in order to attract investment in mining, agriculture, agro-processing and general manufacturing.

This will create employment and alleviate poverty.South Korea produces twice the power as SA, yet has the same-sized population. South Africans purchase and use South Korean products such as Samsung, LG, Kia and Hyundai.

SA exports raw or semi-processed minerals. To produce finished products for international markets, a secure and reliable source of power that is environmentally friendly is required. Coal is dirty, expensive and has a long supply chain of pollution in its production. But coal is plentiful and can produce base-load power quite easily. Its waste is pumped uncontrollably into the atmosphere, leading to very noticeable climate change and health and environmental impacts.

Fossil fuels — not only coal — are a real and present danger to the planet.This leaves us with nuclear. Nuclear is cleaner in terms of climate-changing pollution. It is cheaper to produce than coal and renewables. Its waste can be capped and contained.

There is concern that it is a pollutant that will be handed over to future generations, but this can be tackled by trends in the industry to use spent nuclear fuel in future generation reactors. Nuclear power can also provide the base-load electricity needed for industry and an expanding economy.

Heard points out that whatever decision SA takes on its energy, there will be some type of cost. Not making a decision means that poor people will continue living in frustrating poverty.

Taking a decision between coal and nuclear means SA is choosing between climate change and long-term contained pollution. There is no free lunch when it comes to energy.

The policy adopted by the government of an energy mix — aimed not only at providing electrical power, but also at dealing with socioeconomic challenges by creating new industries and revamping existing ones — is the right one.

• Msebenzi is MD of the Nuclear Industry Association
of SA

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