LANCE DICKERSON: Don’t believe the coal hot air: renewables can power our journey to end load-shedding
Don’t let anyone tell you that you must accept coal if you want the lights to stay on
Just as the country was getting used to Stage 6 load-shedding destroying business continuity and wreaking havoc with gate and house alarm batteries, we were reassured that the governing party’s national executive committee (NEC) was meeting to discuss, “among other things, the country’s electricity crisis”. It is astounding how much discussion there is to be had.
Fast forward another few weeks of stage 6 hell with the tragedy of Eskom unfolding in parliament alongside news exposés about dodgy intelligence reports, and the electricity minister was still seemingly floating around, powerless.
The citizens of this country have been taken on a wild ride, with accusations of ministers being in cahoots with criminal syndicates being sensationally turned on its head when it emerged that the author behind former Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter’s explosive revelations was an intelligence operative implicated in apartheid crimes.
Whether De Ruyter’s accusations are the stuff of fiction is frankly a political sideshow. The utility is gravely ill, and only the brave — or delusional — would claim that incompetence and corruption have not been the cyanide that has poisoned it.
Let’s dial back for a moment. We have an ageing fleet of coal power stations and we have been told that their age makes them rickety and prone to failure, a bit like grandad’s old Ford Granada — it needs to be handled with care or it won’t bring you home.
Except, as it was reported recently, the facts aren’t always so simple. You see, it turns out that the US also has an ageing coal fleet. Without going into detail, two US-based coal power stations are comparable to Tutuka and Duvha, which had an energy availability factor in 2021 of 37% and 44% respectively. The same-age US stations, Wansley and Scherer, had an average EAF of 90% and 89% in the same period.
While like-for-like comparisons are futile, it points to the big elephant in the room that may yet trample us all: mismanagement and corruption. The electricity minister, quoted by a news website just before the latest NEC electricity talkshop, said the country should not rule out private players taking over underperforming, old coal power stations.
“Yes,” one could almost hear the country shout. “About time,” they probably said. Except, the minister was also quoted as saying: “There shouldn't be any option excluded on the basis of principle.” And there, dear readers, lies the crux of the matter.
To the ANC the principle being referred to in third person is the dreaded privatisation. To be clear, without the private sector government will not solve the energy crisis. However, there is another principle that not many people are talking about because they are too desperate for the load-shedding carnage to end. That’s the principle of clean energy for the sake of people who live in badly polluted regions, the sake of our children, and the sake of our planet.
It took the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) to call out the government’s nonsensical “state of disaster''. We did not need anyone to tell us we are in a state of disaster, but the prospect of procuring dirty energy without any regard for proper standards is the stuff of nightmares. Instead, we are told all the necessary framework adjustments have been made and it is business as usual.
Indeed it is. Not that much is clear for anyone, but it appears the minister of coal — or rather, energy — will likely remain in charge of procuring energy. And if he can get beyond the fear of privatisation, one of the immediate solutions — in the eyes of government — lies in reinvesting in the old coal power stations. That the energy availability factor must be improved drastically is obvious.
However, who in their right mind would put a few lower stages of load-shedding above doing the right thing and completing a just energy transition — with full knowledge that if talking becomes doing (a rare occurrence in recent memory) renewables really can generate power — and large amounts to boot. Not only will it go a long way towards solving the energy crisis, but it will be clean and more reliable.
For example, think about the chimney collapse at Kusile. In a bid to rush the unit back into operation by the end of this year a host of environmental standards (such as removing dangerous chemicals from the byproduct) have been waived — all in the name of reducing load-shedding. Fair enough, but does the prospect of acid rain on innocent people in Mozambique not keep you awake at night? It should.
There is no excuse. In one year Vietnam’s ambitious and forward-looking rooftop solar programme added 9.3 gigawatts of electricity to the country’s energy supply. Today, because they did not invest fast enough in transmission infrastructure at the same time, they have to put a lid on the sheer amount of power being generated. Don’t let anyone tell you renewables can’t produce enough electricity — regulations and a mindset predating the dinosaurs is what stops renewables from generating enough electricity.
The Free Market Foundation’s Sindile Vabaza wrote last year: “In other words, central to Vietnam’s steady progress in introducing legal and regulatory reforms to gradually open up the electricity market to competition without adversely affecting supply is a functional, vertically integrated, state-owned Vietnam Electricity (EVN) which is mildly profitable, and a political class that while not corruption-free understands the vast energy needed to power growth in their economy.” (“The trouble with inefficient public spending”, December 6 2022).
Don’t let anyone tell you that you must accept coal if you want the lights to stay on. It is time more South Africans stood up for the environment. If anyone needs to be reminded just how dire the situation is, do yourself a favour and visit the Human Impact Lab’s Climate Clock. We have eight years left until the dominoes fall, one by one.
We simply must do the right thing. Renewable energy, backed up with 2nd LiFe battery technology — with as close to a zero carbon footprint as possible and which fills a crucial spot in the circular economy as it solves the problem of what to do with replaced electric vehicles’ batteries — ensures we have an almost endless supply of energy storage capacity waiting to be put to use. It just takes bravery.
Dickerson is MD at 2nd LiFe lithium battery provider Revov.
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