Nuclear energy: the best option for South Africa?


Eskom appears to be more concerned with building new nuclear power stations than in signing power purchase agreements with independent power producers which use renewable energy sources. Energize caught up with energy analyst and managing director of EE Publishers, Chris Yelland, and asked his opinion of what generation technologies South Africa should opt for.

Chris, you are seen by many as an informed energy analyst and your views and opinion are highly regarded by people in the energy sector and the general public. However, there now seems to be a perception that you are opposed to nuclear energy. So where do you stand?

No, I am not in any camp – not in the renewables camp, and not in the nuclear camp. Being labelled in this way is a kind of personalisation of the issues that is unhelpful. It is a sign that the proponents or opponents are unable to address or answer the real issues rationally, and therefore resort to personalisation of the issues, labelling people and putting them into little boxes.

I am certainly not opposed to a nuclear new-build in South Africa on ideological or technology grounds. But there are real issues that both nuclear and renewable energy proponents must deal with.

What are these real issues that must be dealt with by the nuclear industry? Can you elaborate on them?

Firstly, there are public perceptions of political motives, political interference and corruption associated with  mega-project procurements. There are widespread public impressions that things are happening in secret behind closed doors, that due process is not being followed and that there are some rather sinister motives. Whatever we think of the perceptions, whether they are true or not, they actually need to be dealt with.

The high upfront capital cost and associated financing and affordability of such mega-projects is is an issue. One really has to deal with the high up-front capital cost issue, because it is one of the big drawbacks of nuclear.

We must also fully understand the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) from nuclear power over the lifetime of the plant, taking into account the overnight capital cost, interest during construction, debt, fuel, operating, maintenance, decommissioning and waste disposal costs. The LCOE indicates the overall cost, in Rands per kilowatt hour of the electricity delivered from a nuclear power plant, in order to be able to compare it properly on a similar basis with other technologies.

Nuclear power stations take a long time to build, up to ten to twelve years per reactor, and mega-projects are prone to high cost and time overruns.

South Africa needs flexibility in an uncertain and unpredictable world, where electricity demand is difficult to predict in the years ahead, and disruptive technologies are on the horizon. Technologies such as wind, solar PV and energy storage may change the rules of the game.

Is it prudent to commit to a single technology and a single vendor for a fleet of mega-power projects with long lead times for 80 to 100 years in an uncertain world? Or would it be better to proceed with multiple, smaller projects with short and reliable lead-times, and lower price tags, that can be ordered and built flexibly to meet changing demand, economic circumstances and technologies?

These issues are not actually nuclear vs. renewables, but a issues of inflexible mega-projects vs. smaller flexible projects. So it’s not a question of being anti-nuclear or pro-renewables. It’s a question of giving oneself enough flexibility to deal with the real world in the decades and century ahead.

In the past you were seen as pro-nuclear. Has something changed?

Yes, change is with us all the time.

Up to a decade or so ago, the only non-carbon emitting generation technologies that existed were nuclear and hydro. And up to only a couple of years ago, even though there were alternatives in the form of renewable energy, these were not the least-cost option, especially for water-constrained countries. Up until two or three years ago, nuclear was, in fact, the least-cost, non-carbon emitting technology for South Africa.

But this has now changed. A tipping point was reached as the price of wind and solar PV energy came crashing down. All of a sudden there are now lower cost alternatives to new nuclear and coal power. Nuclear is no longer the least-cost option, and a blend of wind, solar PV, gas and pumped storage can deliver reliable, dispatchable, baseload power at lower cost than new nuclear and even new coal.

What new technology options exist and what do you think is the correct technology mix for South Africa going forward?

As I see it, there are three broad technology options that we could look at going forward, plus of course blends of all three, as we already have coal, nuclear, diesel and hydro power in the mix.

Firstly, there is the big new-nuclear option for South Africa to replace the old coal-fired power stations that have to be retired as they reach end-of-life. This option seems to be favoured by Eskom.

Secondly, there is the option of coal, more coal and still more coal, to replace Eskom’s old, end-of-life coal-fired power stations, and to stick to what we know. Some 80% of South Africa’s electricity currently comes from coal. We have been building coal-fired power plants for decades, and there’s an argument that as we have plenty of coal reserves, we should stick to what we know best, and use our natural coal resources going forward.

Thirdly there’s the option of wind, solar PV, gas and pumped storage. These is a low carbon option just as nuclear is a low carbon option. But it is also an option to deliver reliable baseload capacity in a flexible way at lower cost than the nuclear option. This is what I call “flexible power”.

And as I said, there can be a blends of of all of the above. So, what do I think is the optimal mix? Well, it is actually not important what I think. What is important is that there should be a rational, scientifically-based, transparent integrated resource planning (IRP) process, involving all relevant stakeholders and the public.

We should define upfront the process and methodology to be used. If we commit to this methodology and follow the defined process, we must accept the outcomes and the answers, even if they they are not exactly what we expected. So my view is: let the scientists, engineers and planners do their work properly without political interference.

The IRP process is widely used throughout the world, and presents a rational approach to a complex problem. So it’s not a question of what I think. It’s not a question of my gut feeling, or my personal views. What counts is that we do this whole thing in a rational, scientific and properly planned way.

So, coal and more coal is not the way forward, yet in South Africa, many thousands of people are employed in coal mining and coal transportation, are the job losses which will result from a move away from coal a good thing for South Africa?

In my view, the decline of the coal sector, as the world moves away from coal to a cleaner, low-carbon future both locally and globally, is inevitable.

We live in a global village and South Africa simply cannot continue to burn coal regardless of the consequences to water use, pollution, health and climate change. The world is expecting us to move to cleaner options. South Africa has made international commitments to do just that.

We need to plan ahead and we cannot continue to disregard the consequences of high water use, high pollution, the health impacts and the climate change impacts. We need to address these matters going forward.

Job losses in the coal mining and coal road transport sectors are inevitable as Eskom decommissions its aging coal fleet and replaces this with cleaner technologies. In the next 30 years, a significant part of the coal fleet will be decommissioned. So what do we replace it with? Dirty coal? Or do we look at cleaner options such as renewable energy and nuclear?

So the question should be how to deal with the socio-economic consequences, and the need to grow a competitive, inclusive and growing overall economy, and to replace smoke stack industry jobs with better, higher value-adding jobs in a new, modern and clean economy.

A number of people speak about distributed generation rather than centralised generation. What do you think is the future of rooftop solar PV systems in South Africa?

The growth of rooftop solar PV in domestic, commercial and industrial applications has not been considered in the Draft IRP 2016 at all, and yet is a growing reality globally and in South Africa.

The Department of Energy, Eskom and municipal electricity distributors ignore this growing alternative and supplement to conventional grid electricity at their peril. This is potentially a huge disruptor to the traditional business models of power utilities.

Customers are choosing cleaner and cheaper sources of energy to reduce both costs and dependency on public utilities.

Battery storage technologies are making inroads, and the price of these technologies, which will be used to complement rooftop solar PV at a domestic, commercial and industrial scale, is decreasing.

I expect very significant growth in this market. Solar PV and battery storage prices continue to drop, while the price of grid electricity continues to rise.

Really, utilities have to sit up and take note otherwise they may get themselves into a utility death spiral where rising costs of grid power drive their customers away to alternatives, and as people move to alternatives in a greater number, so the costs of these new technologies come down due to increasing economies of scale. This leads to what is known as the utility death spiral. It really needs to be taken seriously. It has happened in other parts of the world, and it’s not unthinkable that it could happen in South Africa too.

Send your comments to


The post Nuclear energy: the best option for South Africa? appeared first on EE Publishers.

Source: EE plublishers

More news