Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Just how just is our energy transition?

With the crisis in Ukraine, the world is suddenly confronted with an unimaginable energy crisis. Brent crude oil shot above $120 a barrel (bbl) before settling back around $110/bbl.

At these prices, inflation is baked into our future and we better start confronting energy alternatives, and at the same time let’s start questioning how just is our energy transition.

The anti-nuclear lobby is pushing renewables as a solution, but that [is unrealistic]. It’s doing this under the seemingly well-meaning cloak of a Just Energy Transition.

What exactly is a Just Energy Transition? At its core, it must address the issue of energy security and affordability, balanced with environmental sustainability. Sunlight and wind are not going to solve this one on their own. We’re going to need an energy mix, and that includes nuclear.

We’ve recently been reminded by Germany how things can go awry when you pursue ‘environmental sustainability’ as a priority over energy security. Germany is reliant on its neighbors – and that includes Russia – for its energy security, which is almost entirely derived from fossil fuels. That has proven to be a fatal mistake, which today even challenges Germany’s sovereignty.

Shutting down its domestic nuclear power plants has also rendered Germany’s sustainability goals ineffective, while putting electricity price into orbit as it relies more on fossil fuels to stabilize intermittent energy supplies. The result is CO₂ emissions six times higher than Germany’s neighbor France (and way over the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommendations). It should alarm us that this same “model solution” has been sold to South Africa over the past decade with similar consequences, compounded by load shedding.

South Africa does not have the luxury of abundant energy supplies from across its borders and therefore needs to be energy self-sufficient. Fortunately, South Africa has the ability to generate its own electricity from abundant fossil fuels, renewable energy, and uranium. We should therefore learn from the mistakes of our erstwhile mentors and develop our own energy transition that aligns with our energy endowment.

In anticipation of the world doubling its electricity consumption by 2050, environmental scientist and Forbes contributor, James Conca, suggests a balanced and sustainable energy portfolio consisting of: one-third of the world’s electricity produced from fossil fuels (coal and gas), one- third from hydro and renewable energy, and one-third from nuclear energy. This would yield an average CO₂ footprint of <200 grams per kilowatt hour (g/kWh) at an affordable tariff. We then have an effective solution for cleaning up our transport sector and urban areas. With a growing economy and a sustainable environment at hand, we can for once address the quality of life and prosperity of the people of Africa.

South Africa has access to all the energy resources it needs to roll out such a program by:

  • reducing coal through a sensible retirement program;
  • increasing natural gas (with reservations on international price volatility);
  • partnering on regional hydro, and;
  • significantly scaling up renewables and nuclear energy production.

Weather-dependent technologies can then be easily balanced, giving us the only slim chance, we have of eliminating load-shedding over the next decade and moving economic growth into positive territory.

Battery energy storage systems are net consumers of electricity, meaning they consume more power from the grid than they deliver. Their value to the grid is helping to reduce peak demands with energy stored during low demand periods. It is an expensive solution, considering it doesn’t put an extra watt on the grid, and the CO₂ footprint is >200 grams per kilowatt hour (kWh).

The COP 26 climate conference in Glasgow last year highlighted gas and nuclear energy’s valuable contribution to our clean energy transitions. Not only are they classified as “green” in developed country taxonomies, with access to green funding, but also essential to achieving the sustainability goals of these just energy transitions.

If the RMIPPPP (Risk Mitigation Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme) is affordable, then nuclear energy is a clear winner for South Africa. It delivers the most reliable and cleanest electricity on the grid over its 60 to 80-year safe operating life. It may cost three times more to develop and build, but it delivers three times the volume of power for three times longer at the lowest cost, once amortized (like Koeberg). Just what South Africa needs right now. Let’s make it happen.

Des Muller is spokesperson for the SA Nuclear Build Platform.

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