Electricity generation mix: Let’s make SA the ultimate winner


When it comes to the heated energy debate in South Africa, “blessed are the peacemakers” is surely a principle to be encouraged. We need as many cool heads as we can get.

So when Dr. Anthonie Cilliers of North-West University writes that he “object(s) strongly” to article titles which make reference to “war” and “crushing” and calls for no winners and losers in the search for a balanced energy mix, (http://www.ee.co.za/article/wage-war-slice-sas-electricity-pie.html) who would want to disagree?

It’s a noble sentiment but unfortunately, not a practical reality. COSATU (the Congress of South African Trade Unions) has given notice that it intends to call for a national strike in opposition to the renewables programme, arguing that it threatens jobs within the coal sector. The renewables sector is threatening legal action to get the government and Eskom to resume the roll-out of the already-contracted independent power producers procurement programme (REIPPPP), claiming investor flight risk and job losses.

Eskom, in turn, argues that in an electricity over-supply situation, renewables are simply too costly and the power utility would not be acting in consumers’ best interests to continue with the REIPPPP.

So, be it coal miners, coal transporters, coal power plant workers, communities breathing polluted air, workers within the renewables sector, investors, electricity consumers, or our economy as a whole – the impact of the choices we make in keeping the lights on is going to hurt someone. There are going to be winners and losers, so we need to be sure we’re acting on behalf of the greater good, not on behalf of vested interests.

Therein lies the problem with Dr. Cilliers’ article.

By its construction it ends up serving a vested interest – the nuclear industry and its bandwagon of opportunists. The selection of “rational” facts appears to be geared to show the veracity of his belief that nuclear power should form an integral part of a low-carbon energy mix. But it ends up being a collection of half-truths which echo the talking points of the nuclear industry public relations campaigns and, in our view, holds little substance.

To be clear, we (noPEnuke, a public campaign to oppose the planned Nuclear 1 Power Plant at Thyspunt, 85 km west of Port Elizabeth) are biased – we’re anti-nuclear activists – but our opposition to nuclear is not based on belief nor fear.

Our opposition is based on the question that should underlie any evaluation of energy choices for South Africa: what’s the best-fit energy source and system for South Africa’s unique conditions and consumer needs?

To assess “best-fit”, seven criteria are pertinent: need, performance, affordability, safety, sustainability impact of the entire value-chain (socio-economic, environmental and cultural), site suitability and due process.

To this end, our opposition to nuclear energy is specific to the Generation 3+ models currently available for South Africa to purchase – they simply don’t meet the grade.

There’s no point in debating whether we should go for thorium or pebble bed, or small modular reactors (collectively known as Generation Four models) until those become commercially viable – by the nuclear industry’s own estimates, generation four reactors will only be available sometime between 2030 and 2040.

Why do we use the label “half truths”? Surely that’s fighting talk? Surely it goes against the cool-headed approach advocated by Dr. Cilliers, in which different views are rationally tested to find a constructive solution? But how else to describe what is clearly a partial selection of relevant facts?

There are a multitude of points to contest, such as a generation mix necessarily includes all technologies; coal is extremely valuable; mega projects are extremely effective in skills transfers; nuclear can be used to desalinate water and produce hydrogen. For the sake of brevity, let’s focus on three key arguments set out in Dr. Cilliers’ article.

The first is the argument that “nuclear power in its current form… is extremely safe…” which is substantiated by: “according to the World Health Organisation, nuclear power in any form has the lowest fatality rate per GWh produced of any energy source”.

Firstly we cannot find any such WHO fatalities-by-energy-source study, the closest appears to be articles by James Conca (Forbes 2012) and Brian Wang (nextBigFuture 2008 and 2012) who refer to the WHO assessment of nuclear fatalities at Chernobyl/Fukushima. They (not the WHO) claim nuclear has the lowest “death print”.

Secondly it’s a ratio, so it’s the number of deaths divided by the GWh output of the source – both of which rely on estimates. For instance solar “deaths” is specific to rooftop (not solar parks or CSP) and relies on an estimate of builders generally falling from roofs not actual incidents from installing solar panels. Nor does it appear that the nuclear fatalities include the 2000 deaths which occurred as a direct consequence of the Fukushima evacuations.

But the real question is why fatalities are used as the (only) measure of safety? Why is the negative impact on human lives not a better measure: illness from pollution (dare we say it: downwind cancer rates), impact of evacuations, economic loss, etc.? Also missing is a discussion around the actual safety record of Generation 3+ plants – if you’re buying a billion dollar plant, surely you would want to know how it performs before signing the cheque?

Depending on your definition there are between two and six operating Generation 3+ plants globally, out of a total of 402 operating nuclear power plants – is that sufficient to know how safe this particular energy generation technology is?

Dr. Cilliers acknowledges that nuclear has its problems, but he fudges: “we often see cost and schedule over-runs in many of the projects, mostly due to first of a kind implementations in countries. With a fleet approach this would disappear.”

There’s a significant difference between the terms “every” and “many” – we would be happy to be proven wrong, but we do not know of a single Generation 3+ plant that has been delivered on time and on budget. Less than a year after construction start, Hinkley Point in the UK is already looking at significant project-threatening delays and cost over-runs.

If Dr. Cilliers’ argument about learning from building fleets held true, then Hinkley Point, which is a third generation pressurised water reactor (EPR) being built by Areva/EDF (the world’s largest nuclear plant operator) would be working to schedule, given that the same EPR projects in Flamanville (France) and Olkiluoto (Finland) are between five and ten years late and three times the original budget.

By omitting these details, one is left with the impression that the problems faced by the nuclear industry are minor; simple inconveniences which will be overcome. But a review of the entire industry suggests that the nuclear industry is terminally ill and is following in the footsteps of the Concorde and the Space Shuttle – great technology in theory, but unsustainable in practice. Is it a rational choice to commit an entire year’s worth of gross domestic product (GDP) to a fleet of nuclear reactors if the industry supporting the technology is crashing?

Finally, Dr Cilliers’ all-winners argument suggests that we need to maintain a base load supply to partner renewables – “the sun only shines during the day and wind only blows sometimes” rationale.

The argument is reliant on a generic view of South Africa’s demand profile that the CSIR has demonstrated is not the actual case. Something can be generally true but specifically false – the “devil’s in the detail”, caveat.

Eskom refers to the South African demand profile as a “table-top” (think Table Mountain rather than the Drakensberg) which means Dr. Cilliers is correct that there are peaks in the morning and evening (as people at home switch on kettles, cook supper, take baths etc.), but because domestic electricity usage is not the main draw on electricity – mines and industry are – the demand for electricity plateaus between the peaks.

What Dr. Cilliers leaves out in his discussion is that the actual supply from renewable energy sources closely matches this profile, something very particular to South Africa. The other gap is that both coal and nuclear are not very good “followers” because they cannot vary their output with ease or efficiency.

Nuclear achieves its high output rating from the way that utilities like Eskom manage them – they have to keep them running all day, every day with minimal fluctuations to keep them efficient. That’s why the CSIR argues for natural gas as the best partner to renewables, because gas can follow without loss in efficiencies, so renewables has supply priority.

Therein lies the harsh truth we face as a country. Eskom currently operates on a centralised base load system of power generation and distribution. The energy world has, within the last ten years, seen a fundamental shift to variable decentralised systems in adapting to the disruptor impact of renewables.

Furthermore, there is an urgency to reduce energy systems’ negative impact on the planet and South Africa is polluting the planet through its reliance on coal.

So we have to choose – we can stay with the old or go with the new. The choice will create winners and losers, but the ones who should not lose are South African citizens. To ensure this we must be certain the technologies we choose to go with are the ones which best fit our needs and specific circumstances. We believe that nuclear doesn’t.

NoPEnuke is entirely comprised of concerned Nelson Mandela Bay residents opposed to the proposed Nuclear-1 plant at Thyspunt (85 km from Port Elizabeth) and nuclear plants in general. NoPEnuke receives no funds from any external source. It is affiliated to the Thyspunt Alliance and has collaborated with SAFCEI, Greenpeace, Earthlife Africa and Koeberg Alert.

Contact Gary Koekemoer, NoPEnuke, Tel 071 610-2884, garyk22@me.com



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