The government’s new vision for Eskom to avoid the parastatal´s “death spiral”, namely, restructuring, decarbonisation and a just transition, is to be announced by the cabinet in a month’s time according to public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan in his discussion with Bloomberg News.

Decarbonisation (the move away from coal) to renewables is now in a mature phase globally. In the September 9 Bloomberg New Energy Finance Weekly Review, the figures for the last decade of renewable energy investment are led by solar at $2.5-trillion, reaching a level of about 13% of global electricity in 2018 while avoiding about two-billion tonnes of CO2 emissions. Solar capacity alone has risen nearly 30 times since its 2009 level to currently 663GW (Bloomberg).

While greenhouse gases such as CO2, methane and nitrous oxide in the world’s atmosphere are punted as the underlying cause of any observed temperature increase, there can be more than one reason. Increased solar activity is a second, and a third is the heat of reaction from the burning of seven-billion tonnes of coal, 3.5-billion tonnes of oil and significant natural gas annually together with added exothermic nuclear reactions for electricity production — the impact of releasing 5 x 10 exp 20 joules of heat energy annually has not been discounted as insignificant in the literature.

Renewables, therefore, have the potential to reduce not only CO2 emissions from electricity production but will also significantly reduce heat from the oxidation of coal, oil and gas and nuclear reactions.

The advances already achieved in renewables for electricity production illustrate that some long-term projections may be reliably made. Such a forecast is made possible by the huge funding of R&D and the large returns expected in the energy field to consolidate and enhance the continued market entry of renewables. The future game-changers that will enable ongoing cost reduction of renewables and the concomitant increase in its competitive edge are four-fold: efficiency of collection, solar storage, innovative electric motor design, and rapid installation of financially low-risk technology.

First, the efficiency with which solar energy is collected has seen major progress — certainly in the last 30-40 years. In 1985, for instance, there were some encouraging cost projections for photovoltaics but the efficiency of collection from single junction silicon cells then was pretty low at 6%- 8%. The increase is to about 22% for single cell lab examples and 46% for multijunction

Blue sky researchers at Rice University in the US have punted an upper efficiency of 80% as a possibility by using an alternative approach to convert transmitted heat in the panel into photons and hence electricity using nano-technology.

There are other possible designs such as tandem cells, bifacial cells and many alternative materials to silicon that absorb alternative wavelengths. All these possibilities auger well for future commercial success at higher cell efficiencies.

Second, a major area for intensive research is that of batteries for energy storage. As outlined in a recent World Bank Report (June 2019) a major future focus of renewables is solar-plus-storage (batteries) using micro grids. There are two approaches within this framework that show promise: one is the digitisation of microgrid technology, which is being pursued particularly by Nextera Energy, a major nuclear energy utility in the US. This utility operates nuclear exclusively with a capability of 46GW — the size of Eskom. They have recently announced a 700MW market entry into renewables with a micro/mini grid using the digitised approach.

The second approach is battery technology improvement itself, namely a recently announced innovation by Samsung in the next couple of years whereby the household Samsung Galaxy flagship is to be powered by their newly developed graphene battery instead of the conventional lithium ion. The advantage of this is a dramatically improved reduction in the current charging time to half an hour from typically 6-8 hours.

Therefore, should this battery scale up, it will lead to the possibility of reduced charging times and then dramatically effect both the electric car market and energy production. As can be expected, the potential carrot for success in battery technology is enormous and there are many new research initiatives in gestation with the concomitant positive chances of success.

A third recently announced game-changer is the redesign of the 100-year-old relatively static technology of the electric motor itself. The claimed benefits of the new design (using four rotors) by a Texan company of the Hunstable Electric Turbine (HET) is a two- to five-fold torque increase together with doubling the power output in the already large torque of current electric motors.

Fourth, another specific advantage of renewables is the speed with which smaller countries such as Vietnam and South Korea have recently been able to build capacity — up to 2GW in one year each (bearing in mind that for solar and wind these are maximum output capacities). Compare the time taken for Medupi and Kusile — 11 years for 4.8GW each and Kusile still far from being operational.

In addition, the 2019 World Bank Report states that solar plus storage using microgrid technology is well-established in such minnow countries as Myanmar and Afghanistan. This rapid installation of financially low-risk technology should be of considerable importance to SA.

However, for SA to fully embrace renewables there are impediments: financial viability, loss of jobs and reskilling.

Eskom’s parlous financial state means that to expect it to embrace renewables while in financial distress would be a proverbial miracle. The recent announcement of the restructuring of Eskom will hopefully be the part of the miracle needed; however, just how the decarbonisation component will be structured in remains to be seen.

Second, the current trade union stance of baying for a “just transition” contains an element of truth. The good news is that the loss of jobs from the decarbonisation of electricity can be offset by reskilling into renewables (the “just transition”) and is currently being addressed worldwide, particularly in the US, for example in Arizona, where the closure of both coal mines and coal-fired power stations are affecting the financial stability of indigenous communities such as the Navajo people.

Inevitably, therefore, the outcome globally will demand large-scale reskilling since there is considerable scope for ongoing R&D innovation particularly in batteries, micro/mini grid and solar panel efficiency to effect ongoing cost reduction and increased competitiveness.

The CSIR has already estimated the likely total number of jobs (direct, indirect and induced) to be lost as 100,000 due to the decommissioning of ageing Eskom plants through to 2030. But in our mixed economy it cannot be left to the government. In addition, the bottom line for SA as a leading coal exporter worldwide is ever-increasing competition for a shrinking market with consequences for an increase in the job loss figures.  

Decarbonising electricity is one of the biggest technological changes in human history — despite US President Donald Trump’s environmentally unfriendly focus on coal with his quick-fix political agenda for the US’s big business interests.

SA should be gearing for the future technological changes by employing the right people in the right places at the right time for all the right reasons . And that time is now — an opportunity to regain our economic viability.

• Wood is a former cost engineer with Mintek, silicon metal development manager at Samancor and business group member with ICI Corporate Lab in the UK.