Can we have more renewable energy now, please?

Posted by Laura Grant on December 9, 2008
Posted in Renewable energy

Now that Eskom, the state electricity utility, has decided that it can’t afford to build a new nuclear power plant will it start to pay more attention to renewable energy alternatives?

Many South Africans breathed a sigh of relief at the news last week that the board of Eskom had decided not to proceed with the proposed Nuclear-1 project – the country’s second pressurised water reactor nuclear power plant.

But, alas, the decision was not taken because Eskom had decided to scrap nuclear and embrace solar and wind. The size of the investment in Nuclear-1 is more than Eskom can handle in these straitened times and the utility is finding it hard to raise the money needed to fund the project.

The two bidders for the contract, the EPR consortium led by Areva of France and the N-Powerment consortium led by Westinghouse of the USA, have been told the bad news and have taken it rather well, according to reports.

The planned new nuclear plant was announced last year when South Africa was experiencing crippling power cuts. Work on the project was expected to start in 2010. The plant’s first power was expected in 2017/18. Reports say the plant was anticipated to generate about 3,500MW of electricity.

South Africa has only one nuclear power plant at present. Koeberg, situated on the Western Cape coast near Cape Town, which supplies 1,800MW, or 6 percent of the country’s electricity. But the country has big nuclear ambitions. Eskom wants to increase the amount of nuclear power supplied to the grid to 20,000MW, which is about a quarter of the 80,000MW it hopes to be generating by 2025 – up from 40,000W now.

Estimates put the cost of Nuclear-1 at more than R100-billion ($10-billion) – which would apparently make it the largest single investment in Eskom’s history. But Eskom spokesman Fani Zulu declined to disclose the worth of the project to AFP, saying Eskom had signed a confidentiality agreement with the two foreign companies bidding for the contract.

Business Day wrote that the project could have cost as much as R200-billion, or an amount that could have “bought Eskom two new coal-fired power stations, and left it with some change to spare”.

Anyway, it has been put on the back burner until further notice. Political opposition parties have reportedly hailed the news, saying it has spared South Africa the burden of a huge foreign debt.

No, It seems not. Portial Molefe, the director general of the department of public enterprises, has been quoted as saying that the government is still committed to introducing nuclear because the country has to deal with its carbon footprint and diversify its energy mix – about 90 percent of our energy comes from coal.

In a press statement the department said: “Government is committed to exploring the use of nuclear energy as part of base-load energy generation and to build an associated industrial capability to support such generation thereby reducing the cost of nuclear energy over time.”

It added that the government would establish a task team, lead by the department of minerals and energy, “that will work with Eskom, to develop and implement a framework for procuring a nuclear technology partner to support both the build and associated industrialisation process”.

There is speculation that the government may be hoping that the price of nuclear will come down as recession reduces global demand for nuclear power.

The Coalition Against Nuclear Energy issued a statement in which it said that there is little reason for over optimism about Eskom’s decision not to invest in foreign companies for the Nuclear-1 project plant while the government remains committed to its nuclear power programme.

Cane said there was “a deliberate silence” about the experimental pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR), which it said had already cost taxpayers more than R16-billion.

According to Business Report, Molefe of the department of public enterprise had said that the PBMR programme was not being abandoned, but it would be delayed.

There are many in South Africa who believe that nuclear is the only alternative to coal for “clean” baseload power. But in recent times the support for renewable energy has increased noticeably. A group of MPs even formed a lobby group in October to get things moving in the renewable energy sector.

Greenpeace opened its first office in South Africa last month to focus on getting the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions – it is the 14th-highest carbon emitter in the world – by ending its dependence on coal, without resorting to nuclear power. “The country is in a position to harness abundant renewable energy sources – solar, wind and biomass – and take a lead in an African energy revolution,” says Greenpeace.

The cost of renewable energy is usually given as the reason why it is impractical. But this is beginning to change. Brad Smith, campaign director for Greenpeace Africa, was reported as saying: “As the costs of nuclear power continue to soar, the price of renewable energy is decreasing annually.

“Already, and without subsidies, wind power is cheaper than nuclear power per unit of energy produced, while concentrated solar technologies are making big progress in the same direction,” he said.

Research from the University of Cape Town, released at a WWF National Renewable Energy Conference last month, found that renewable energy could be cheaper then nuclear. Electricity from renewables like wind and solar would require large-scale investment, but would not significantly raise the price of electricity, the WWF said. “That price increase – if we used renewable electricity to supply 15 percent of our electricity – would in 2020 be 15 percent higher than if we continued building coal power stations. This compares to a 20 percent increase if we pursued the nuclear alternative.

The Independent Democrats political party said in a statement that it was “very pleased” that the government had decided not to proceed with its proposed nuclear energy expansion programme because it would have saddled South Africa with enormous foreign debt and contributed very little to local job creation.

The party said money should be invested in renewable energy, most of which could be built by local industries and create jobs.

The 2003 White Paper on Renewable Energy set a target of 10,000GWh hours by 2013. But we’re a far cry from meeting these targets and the finance minister has reportedly said that he’s not convinced of the economic case for large-scale renewable energy projects in South Africa, hence the focus on nukes and coal

But now that nukes have become prohibitively expensive and with a bit of pressure from the MPs and the enviro groups, hopefully the government and Eskom will start looking a lot more seriously at investing in renewable energy alternatives.

Wind tubine pic licenced under Creative Commons licence Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic


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