The future of electrical energy is playing out in South Africa, where 80% of all electricity is generated by burning coal. The government is anxious to shutter all those coal fired plants but is caught in a crossfire between advocates for nuclear power and those who favor renewable solutions like solar and wind energy.
South Africa is the most advanced economy in sub-Saharan Africa. Until 2008, its electrical power came from coal fired generating stations and one nuclear power plant. Starting in 2008, the country ran short of electricity due to poor infrastructure planning, That’s when crippling rolling blackouts began. Desperate for more electrical capacity, the government started a campaign to lure investment in wind and solar power. By June of this year, 102 renewable energy projects worth $14.4 billion had been completed.
Renewable Strategy Successful
“The program has been very successful, clear of any corruption and very well run,” said Wikus van Niekerk, the director of the Center for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies at Stellenbosch University. “It’s been seen by many people in the rest of the world as one of the most successful procurement programs for renewable energy. It’s something that the South African government and public should be proud about.”
Several of those projects are concentrated solar facilities located near Upington in the central part of the country. That area has some of the most abundant daily sunshine of any place on earth. But those facilities use technology that is now almost obsolete. They use mirrors to concentrate sunlight to boil water to make steam.
After the sun goes down, they can continue to make electricity from the steam on hand for a few hours. After that, they have to wait for the sun to reappear the next day. Newer concentrated solar plants use the sun’s rays to heat molten salt, which can be kept in storage for up to 10 hours after the sun sets and used to keep the steam turbines spinning. Researchers in Spain say using molten silicon can store up to ten times as much energy as molten salt.
What About Nuclear?
That intermittent nature of renewable energy has left the door open for another option — nuclear power. The country’s primary utility company, Eksom, strongly favors building massive new nuclear facilities. At 7 p.m., when demand peaks, “the wind may not be moving, and the sun has set,” said Brian Molefe, Eskom’s chief executive. He added that further expansion of renewable energy should “go slow” until cheap and efficient storage technology for renewables is developed.
In fact, the technology for storing electricity is improving at a furious pace right now. In the past few weeks, Tesla has announced that it has doubled the energy storage capacity of its grid scale storage batteries in just one year since they were first introduced. That prompts critics of nuclear power to ask, why invest billions in nuclear facilities now? Nukes have a useful life of 60 years or more. Going the nuclear route would delay the advent of zero emissions power by decades.
Is Baseload Power An Outmoded Concept?
“The concept of baseload is actually an outdated concept,” said Harald Winkler, the director of the Energy Research Center at the University of Cape Town. “Eskom was built around big coal and to a lesser extent big nuclear — big chunks of base load power. It’s really myopic in terms of where the future of the grid is going to go. We’re going to see in South Africa and the rest of the world much more decentralized grids.”
Distributed Vs. Centralized Power
Ahhh, there is in a nutshell. The same fears that drive established utility companies in the United States. Europe, and Australia apply in South Africa. Utility companies think in terms of centralized grids. Renewables coupled with efficient, cost effective energy storage make grids virtually obsolete. Utility companies are petrified they may become irrelevant and the trillions of dollars invested in building grids throughout the world will stop producing income.
Businesses in South African cities are increasingly installing solar panels and going off the grid. Elsewhere in Africa, it is now common to see villagers connecting cellphones to single solar panels outside mud brick homes.
Opposition to South Africa’s nuclear plans is also coming from the government’s main research agency, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. It says an expansion of solar and wind energy, in addition to natural gas, could meet South Africa’s future energy needs for less money. “No new coal, no new nuclear,” said Tobias BischofNiemz, who leads the
council’s research on energy. “South Africa is in a very fortunate situation where we can decarbonize our energy system at negative cost.”
Other Countries Are Watching
How South Africa decides to move forward could impact other African countries that are trying to provide electrical power to their citizens and lower their carbon footprint in accordance with pledges made at the COP21 global conference on climate change in Paris last December.
Many of them want to leapfrog over older and dirtier sources of energy like coal and oil. Renewable energy could also bring diversification to nations that are dangerously dependent on a single source of electricity. Both Malawi and Zambia have experienced crippling blackouts because severe droughts related to climate change have lowered water levels. That in turn has led to less availability of hydroelectric power.
Nuclear power relies completely on a centralized grid. Building grid infrastructure — transmission lines and substations — costs as much or more as a building generating facilities themselves. That’s why localized renewable power provides the most amount of electricity per dollar invested.
Source: New York Times Photo Credit: Quora