LUNGILE MASHELE: Thinking small will result in more blackouts
Cheap and reliable electricity is coal, nuclear and gas — to deny this will confine millions to poverty
As I drove down the N4 heading towards the Ressano Garcia border, a familiar scene came into sight. Hundreds of coal haulage trucks had formed a queue at least 15km long waiting to get through the SA-Mozambique border. This is so they could haul export-grade coal to the port of Maputo and ship it to the EU and other territories.
As SA continues its energy transition ambitions despite stage 6 load-shedding, Europe’s thirst for coal continues unabated. In the first quarter of 2023 the EU’s coal imports increased by 15.1% year on year. In 2022 it imported 14.1-million tonnes of coal from SA, up about 600% from just 2-million tonnes in 2021.
Despite sanctions against Russia, the EU has also increased imports of Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) by 40% since the start of the Ukraine conflict on fears of a cold winter and possible blackouts. Over the past year Germany has built what has been hailed as the quickest LNG facility ever constructed, erected in a record time of 10 months.
In recent weeks videos have surfaced of European teenagers who were co-opted into Greenpeace’s anti-nuclear agenda without understanding its origins, which stemmed from the Cold War and nuclear proliferation. These youths have turned 180° and now want nuclear to be considered in the future energy mix.
Last week a documentary released by German state-owned foreign broadcaster DW, Power Failure in Germany — Horror Scenario or Genuine Possibility?, captured German politicians and technocrats’ concerns that grid instability could result in a surge of power backup purchases.
The documentary delves into the challenges faced by Germany’s system operator in managing a grid with increased variable renewable energy. A system where the reserve margin is above 200% because some days there is no wind or solar, a phenomenon they call dunkelflaute — a period that is cold, cloudy and windless. The German grid is susceptible to price surges because there is insufficient firm or flexible capacity, hence the need to import coal and gas.
The documentary highlights Germany’s energiewende (energy turnaround) policy, which champions renewables but has also resulted in the highest electricity tariffs in the world. A comment is made about how the high tariffs could upset Germany’s social fabric. The country has been in a state of economic decline that many blame on its climate policies, saying they have led to recession and looming deindustrialisation of Europe’s “economic motor”.
Meanwhile in Africa there is yet another climate conference under way in Kenya. Yes, the same Kenya that just suffered another blackout in August that left parts of the country in complete darkness, disrupting business and the international airport.
Kenya has abundant wind, solar and geothermal energy, but a decision not to renew the thermal contracts plunged the country into chaos as there was no backup to help manage the system disturbance that led to the blackout. Without a hint of irony, a group of Kenyan youths responded by protesting against the use of fossil fuels.
As Africans we cannot afford to think small on energy because that will confine millions to poverty. The Global North has over the past five years displayed not only naiveté but duplicitous behaviour. “Do as I say, not as I do” has been the mantra.
Nothing said in the DW documentary came as a revelation to energy economists, scientists and engineers because while the laws of economics may be malleable, the laws of physics are not. Given a choice people will always choose cheap and reliable electricity. Cheap and reliable electricity is coal, nuclear and gas.
Taking energy policy and planning advice from teenagers who have never had to cook over a fire or study by candlelight is foolhardy. Quite frankly, if you take energy advice from teenagers who have never attended a single engineering lecture you deserve to sit in the dark.
• Mashele is an independent energy economist.
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