South Africa is the most coal-dependent country in the world for its energy needs, and coal is the most damaging fossil fuel in terms of its effects on health, global warming and human-caused climate change. The country, however, also suffers from the toxic mix of staggering unemployment rates entire cities and livelihoods linked to the coal value chaina constant energy hazard and an energy company that is financially unable to invest in cleaner forms of energy production.
In the context of this quagmire, a recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) Security of clean energy transitionsoffers one way to solve all these problems: repurposing coal infrastructure.
The abstract of the report explains that it “explores the emerging challenges of maintaining energy security in the context of the clean energy transition towards zero emissions.”
The report “highlights key challenges to energy security during the energy transition and provides policy recommendations to governments, particularly within the Group of Twenty (G20), to maintain and improve energy security while accelerating the clean energy transition.”
South Africa is one of the top 20 emitters of greenhouse gases worldwide and accounts for more than 1% of all historical greenhouse gas emissions. Rapidly reducing global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is an increasingly urgent and necessary challenge if humanity is to limit the increase in global average temperature below 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels.
The latest science on climate change and global warming – Report of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment – estimates the value of global warming to date at 1.1°C.
More than 1.5°C is considered “dangerous climate change“.
See South Africa’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Emissions Targets.
The agency’s report states that “repurposing coal infrastructure can accelerate a just and secure energy transition. The most interesting asset in the coal value chain is usually the coal-fired power plant and its associated infrastructure, particularly the connection to the electricity transmission grid. There is currently more than 2,000 GW of coal-fired power that can be converted into low-carbon assets in a variety of ways, ensuring grid adequacy, flexibility and stability.”
The first option would be to retrofit coal-fired power plants with carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) technologies. “Another option is to use low-carbon fuels such as sustainable biomass or ammonia derived from renewable hydrogen or fossil fuels in combination with CCUS.”
The government and Sasol are considering this ammonia among other hydrogen-related initiatives.
More details in Daily Maverick: “The Past, Present and Future of Coal Power in South Africa»
Our burning planet reported in January, Minister of the Presidency Mondli Gungubele described a “groundbreaking venture between the national government, Northern Cape and Sasol that will bring much-needed economic growth and investment to our shores through green hydrogen production.”
“Over the past 12 months, Infrastructure South Africa has worked with the Northern Cape and Gauteng provincial governments to develop catalytic green H2 projects that underpin the provinces’ green H2 strategies, with the Northern Cape as the production hub and Gauteng as the domestic hub demand. .”
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Green hydrogen is produced using renewable energy sources and electrolysis to split water and differs from gray hydrogen, which uses gas to split water and emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Compared to internal combustion engines or fossil fuels, the only byproduct of green hydrogen is water vapor.
The IEA report explains that biomass has the “additional advantage” that, when combined with CCUS, “it can turn coal-fired power plants, currently the largest source of CO2 emissions, into a negative emission source.”
It says that “converting or upgrading existing coal-fired power plants offers many benefits, including the prospect of a faster permitting process and leveraging existing grid connections, two important bottlenecks identified in the clean energy transition.”
More details in Daily Maverick: “Shutting down coal is a matter of conscience – just ask the victims of Mpumalanga’s deadly air»
“The repurposing of the existing infrastructure offers the prospect of accelerating the transition. For example, existing thermal assets can provide the flexibility that variable renewables require, complementing other sources such as transmission, storage and demand response, while providing the benefits of reducing emissions when they run on lower carbon fuels.”
Advantages and Disadvantages
Of particular relevance to South Africa and Mpumalanga in particular with its dependence on the coal value chain, the report notes the potential disruptions that decommissioning coal infrastructure could cause.
“Decommissioning existing infrastructure can cause economic disruption to local communities that depend on it for employment and income. Leveraging existing strengths to identify new use cases for existing infrastructure during transition can have many benefits. In particular, the repurposing or conversion of existing infrastructure preserves a significant portion of the infrastructure’s value, preserving jobs and the tax base in the communities where the infrastructure is located,” the report said.
Formerly Thabo Mokoena, former Director General of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy wrote that “coal remains abundant in South Africa and is indicated to be the primary source for power generation as it guarantees a reliable supply of base load; that is, the production of an uninterrupted and constant supply of electricity for the country’s economic and social endeavours.’
He added that “we believe that upgrading existing coal-fired power plants with nuclear and/or natural gas is cost-effective and will provide further economic development in areas where the current majority of South Africa’s electricity sector depends on these plants. It would also reduce the need for rapid network infrastructure expansion.”
Our burning planet referred questions to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy about whether that remains the department’s position. We were told that these questions are best answered by Eskom.
Despite this, Bloomberg earlier reported that Energy Minister Gwede Montashe is advancing its plan to create a new state-owned energy company by converting three coal-fired power plants to gas-fired generators.
More details in Daily Maverick: “Montashe proposes a second state-owned energy company to solve the energy crisis – Ramaphosa agrees»
In one interview, he said: “If we repurpose them into gas-fired power plants, we will save a lot of lives in South Africa in terms of energy.”
Mantash’s plan involves taking over the aging Hendrin, Grootvlei and Camden plants, which have a combined capacity of 4,800 megawatts. Bloomberg the report notes. OBP/DM