The government wants to repurpose South Africa’s coal fleet towards nuclear energy as part of a move away from harmful fossil fuels over the next 30 years.
The proposal is included in the government’s national infrastructure plan 2050 which was published by public works and Infrastructure minister Patricia De Lille on Friday (11 March).
“Reliance on coal will be significantly reduced and the reliance on renewable energy dramatically lifted, especially in solar and wind, where South Africa has a significant advantage,” it said.
“(Government will) consider both repurposing and retrofitting the baseload coal fleet with advanced and innovative baseload nuclear energy systems that can be deployed inland which provide an opportunity for reskilling and retention of the existing coal workforce.”
South Africa has long depended on electricity from coal-fired power stations, delivered by Eskom as a vertically integrated monopoly. In 2010, 87% of 254 TWh of power was coal-fired.
By 2019, annual electricity production was 3,5% less, at 245 TWh, with coal accounting for 79% and renewables for 12%.
The twin units of Koeberg nuclear power plant contributes about 1,800MW and 5% of the total energy as well as provide stability to the national electricity grid.
Of the 18,000 MW of new generation capacity committed to the national Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2010, about one-third was from renewable energy independent power producers (IPPs) – with only half of that operational by 2020
The role of nuclear in South Africa’s future
“The role of nuclear energy in achieving net-zero emission goals cannot be overemphasised as it is evident in some countries of the G20 that already have Paris Agreement compatible plans and are aggressively deploying or considering ramping the share of nuclear in the energy mix such as France (operating about 58 nuclear power plants) and Canada,” the government said.
“Seeing that no economy of the world can be powered wholly from renewables, there is room for co-existence of baseload energy source such as nuclear and renewables in so called hybrid energy systems wherein the baseload energy source would kick in to fill the demand /supply curve when intermittent renewables are not available.”
The shift to a least-cost path that is increasingly reliant on renewables is imperative for four main reasons, it said. These include:
- South Africa cannot afford to overspend while dramatically expanding its capacity.
- Renewables can be built quickly and in modular form, thereby avoiding many of the challenges associated with mega projects.
- Trade partners are expected to increasingly impose border carbon taxes, harming South African exports.
- South Africa has committed to emission reductions as a global citizen and will need to demonstrate this commitment to access green finance.
The energy sector globally is experiencing the fastest rate of technological change and innovation ever in history, with significant growth in private participation at all stages of the value chain, government said.
“However, it should be stated that the markets are indicative of lower costs of clean nuclear energy with the introduction of Small Modular Reactors, this is a game-changer in the future energy planning as the latter reactors could also be used in hybrid systems for hydrogen production, industrial process heat and in water desalination.
“There is clearly an appetite in the South African private and public sectors to leverage these opportunities for a course correction.”
Renewables will play largest role
By 2050 government envisages that reliance on coal will be reduced and reliance on renewable energy will be dramatically lifted, especially solar and wind, which play a dominant role as part of a least-cost energy mix and where South Africa has a significant advantage.
“The goals are to ensure financial and environmental sustainability as well as to ensure that South African exports have lower levels of embedded carbon and hence less susceptible to planned border carbon taxes in our major trade partners.
“By 2050, energy demand is projected to double. Installed generation capacity will therefore need to expand, from 53 GW in 2018 to between 133 GW and 174 GW by 2050, depending on energy demand at that time.”
By 2030, 25 GW will have to be added to installed capacity with the requisite supportive transmission and distribution network infrastructure, it said.