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Drought, severe storms, wild temperature swings - It’s clear that global warming is very real and that energy plans for the future should lower our collective footprint while still meeting our energy demands. Here we look at what that means for South Africa’s future energy mix and our growing need for power.

The predicted mix

The reality is that there is still no definite way forward for South Africa’s energy mix. A huge debate is still raging over what will make up South Africa’s base-load energy – coal or wind? Each has its advantages and disadvantages: the main concern with coal is its high levels of CO2 emitted, and the concern with wind is that it’s difficult to control – what do we do if the wind doesn’t blow? 

The Department of Energy has made a plan for what South Africa’s energy generation portfolio will look like by the year 2050. The idea, as detailed in this BusinessLive article, is that it will include: “37.4 GW wind; 21.9 GW combined-cycle gas turbines; 20.3 GW nuclear; 17.6 GW solar photovoltaic (PV); 15 GW coal; 13.3 GW open-cycle gas turbines; 2.5 GW Inga hydro-electric project; 250 MW landfill gas and 500 MW demand response”. This shows wind as the predicted frontrunner, but a lot can change before 2050. At this point, it is important to look at the factors and developments driving the adoption of the different energy sources.

Factors leading to energy source adoption

In 2016, with no clear view of the way forward from the national Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity, CSIR Energy Centre conducted its own study to re-optimise the South African power capacity and energy mix. For their study, they considered the lessened energy demand forecast for the years ahead as well as targets for lower CO2 emissions. The need to use less water in energy generation and the lower costs of solar and wind energy were also considered.

Interestingly, the CSIR study revealed that there is no proof that we will need more coal and nuclear power in the re-optimised least-cost mix for the years leading to 2040. This is due to the forecasted decline in electricity demand, the fact that solar and wind energy sources are more cost-effective. The gradual decline of coal-based energy (both old and new) would also lead to huge water savings. According to the CSIR study, this would result in ‘a water usage some 60% lower than that of the “business as usual” scenario, with a saving of 40 billion litres of water per annum by 2040’.

The different sources of energy

Wind

The bigger the turbines and the more consistent the wind speed, the greater the amount of power generated. South Africa has a huge potential for wind energy, especially in the Eastern and Western Cape where the country's best wind resources already exist. Prime conditions and an existing infrastructure make this a great option for South Africa’s future energy mix.

Gas

Some say natural gas is the most environmentally friendly fossil fuel due to its low CO2 emissions per unit of energy. In fact, it’s a lot less harmful to the environment than petroleum and coal. Burning natural gas emits on average 30% less carbon dioxide than petroleum and 45% less than coal. Natural gas has many benefits; it’s safe and easy to use, environmentally friendly and extremely cost-effective. 

Nuclear

Nuclear energy is a controversial topic in South Africa currently. However, it is said to be one of the safest sources of energy and already makes up about 6% of South Africa’s energy mix, with the only nuclear power plant on the continent being based in Cape Town. Nuclear energy is created through the process of nuclear fission or fusion. While said to be environmentally friendly due to its lower levels of greenhouse emissions compared to other energy sources (such as coal), concerns surround this non-renewable source of energy because the radioactive waste produced by it.

Solar

Solar power is seen as one of the front-runners of renewable energy resources and there has been a huge push for its implementation in many countries around the globe, including South Africa. With its popularity came huge advancements in technology; solar energy is now cheaper than coal in many countries across the world. The prediction is that solar power will soon be the most cost-effective energy power in the world.

Coal

The fundamental problem with coal is the high levels of CO2 emissions created when it is burnt for energy generation. The huge challenge in ensuring that coal has a future as one of South Africa’s most useful and valuable minerals is to find ways to drastically reduce those emissions to lessen the damage to the environment. Otherwise, coal will certainly lose its power as a central part of South Africa’s energy mix.

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