Show! It sounds like great organization and efficiency, qualities not on the current government’s list of attributes, but would the private sector get involved – who knows? At this point, South Africans will be grasping at any straw to find a solution to the energy crisis. – Sandra Lawrence

South Africa’s energy crisis can be fixed in less time than expected

Pa Paul Tousson, PrEng, MSc, MBL

South Africans currently experience up to 10 hours of congestion per day, ranging between level 5 and 6 and possibly higher. Maintenance of Eskom’s coal-fired plants has been delayed by “skills and liquidity issues”, Eskom’s Cape gas-fired power stations and private gas-fired power stations Avon and Dedisa are costing billions in fuel and operation and sometimes diesel logistics costs. I can’t keep up. K√∂berg appears headed for disaster with a reactor meltdown, an expiring nuclear license and delays in maintenance and upgrades, and an exodus of key technical and management skills. When both Koeberg units are shut down, the transport losses to the Cape are an entire block of a typical Eskom “six pack” power plant ie. 500 MW.

The current energy crisis seems hopeless, and our confidence in our national leadership is even more so. However, energy problems can be fixed, and in a shorter time than expected. In fact, with the right intervention, South Africa could export surplus electricity to its neighbours.

Interventions and solutions are as follows:

  1. Install rooftop solar photovoltaic and battery energy storage systems (BESS) on every structurally sound industrial, commercial, educational, medical and residential facility in the country.

2. Install public utility solar PV along with BESS across the country, even in areas with less attractive solar irradiance levels, but only where there is transmission and distribution capacity. This will ensure geographic diversity of natural weather conditions, distribution of generation closer to load centers and resilience to extreme weather events.

3. Build key strategic transmission lines in the Northern Cape Province and pay appropriate compensation to landowners for transmission line easements and power lines on their land. This will open up an immediate 5 to 10 GW of shovel-ready solar PV IPP projects.

Contract 4 Floating Regasification Storage Units (FSRUs) and build 1GW Open Cycle Gas Turbines (OCGTs) alongside these FSRUs in key coastal cities such as Richards Bay, East London, Gkeberha (Port Elizabeth) and Saldanha- Bay.

Solar on the roof and BESS

The South African Housing Market Report 2020 shows that there are 16.9 million households in South Africa. If a 5 kW PV system is installed on 16.9 million residential buildings, it will generate 84 GW of electricity, nearly three times the country’s peak demand. If only 1/10th of these households could support a 5kW PV system, that would mean 8.4GW of power, and if only 1/20th could, that would be 4.2GW. This 4.2GW is the capacity of Eskom’s large “6-pack” coal-fired power station and is more than twice the capacity of Cape Town’s Koeberg nuclear power station. Due to the diurnal characteristics of the sun and due to clouds and rain, this will not provide 24/7 power, but it will be an important addition to the power supply and can be greatly improved by adding BESSs that will charge when the sun shines and discharge at night. Add to the above 4.2 GW the power of office buildings, commercial buildings, schools, factories, hospitals, warehouses and millions of carports and parking lots, and the potential capacity of solar PV is much greater.

Legislation is urgently needed to allow consumers to become prosumers ie. consumers, who can also export their electricity to the grid and receive compensation for it, albeit at differential tariffs. Time of Use (ToU) tariffs should be introduced to encourage better use of electricity. Tax incentives and financing models from major financial institutions should be accelerated to help customers who find the capital costs of solar PV and BESS systems prohibitive. Rooftop PV and BESS systems can be installed within weeks/months.

Geographically dispersed utility Solar PV Generation and BESS

Over the past decade and as a result of the Renewable Independent Producers Program (REIPPP), variable renewable energy (VRE) developers (ie, solar PV and wind developers) have been identifying VRE locations with the best solar and wind resources. However, transmission line capacity is being reduced and transmission capacity is being used in the northern Cape, near Upington. VRE IPP installations should be encouraged to install geographically distributed VRE installations close to transmission and distribution infrastructure and near load centers. This will reduce power transmission losses, provide geographic diversity of natural weather conditions and resilience to extreme weather events. VRE and BESS plants can be installed within a year.

Power lines in the Northern Cape Province

There are currently only two 400kV transmission lines from the Aries substation in the northern Cape (near Upington) to the key load centers of Gauteng, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and the North West. Each 400 kV line can transport approximately 500 MW (0.5 GW). In the northern Cape province, where the level of solar radiation is the best in the country, solar photovoltaic projects with a capacity of 5 to 10 GW are planned and ready for use. This IPP capacity cannot be connected to the transmission system as transmission lines from the Upington area are already operating at full capacity.

Additional power lines from the Upington area have already been planned and designed, however easements/leaves cannot be obtained from landowners along the routes of the 400kV power lines. Easements for these transmission lines should be secured for the national benefit, and some attractive compensation mechanism should be offered to these landowners to secure these easements.

400kV lines can be built in two years with the right procedures.

1 GW FSRU and OCGT

As the penetration of inverter-based VRE generation expands, there is an increasing need for mitigating, flexible power plants to counter the intermittency and variability of VRE. System flexibility can be obtained with BESS, but another important source of flexibility is open-cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) and internal combustion engines (ICEs). Flexible thermal power plants also provide fault tolerance and system inertia and can be used during extended periods of bad weather or as backup generation when other conventional synchronous generators have unscheduled and scheduled outages. The capital costs of CHP and ICE are low, but fuel costs are high, however, with proper planning and operation, these thermal power plants do not need to operate for long periods, ie. no more than 5% of the calendar year, which is an environmentally acceptable trade-off.

World prices for liquefied natural gas (LNG) are currently high due to the war in Ukraine, but when the war ends, world prices should return to normal levels. When LNG arrives at the generation destination, it must be regasified, ie. liquefied natural gas must be converted to gas, which has a much larger volume than LNG. Regasification facilities can be built on land close to ports (due to seaborne LNG supplies), however emergency floating storage regasification units (FSRUs) can be used close to port and the gas fed to OCGTs and ICEs on land and close to ports. The thermal power plants will then be connected to grid substations near the power plants.

OCGT and ICE can be built in less than two years if the necessary ESIA permits are in place.

Other mid-term and long-term solutions

1) Very large volumes of natural gas exist in northern Mozambique (estimated at 100 trillion cubic feet (tcf)). If gas pipelines like the Sasol Temane pipeline could be built, natural gas-fired thermal power plants could be built in South Africa’s non-port facilities.

2) The Mozambique North-South Transmission System should be built, unlocking the capacity of the 1200MW Cabora Bassa North Bank Hydroelectric Project and the 1500MW Mfanda Nkuwa Hydroelectric Project located on the Zambezi River.

3) The large 40 GW Grand Inga hydroelectric plant on the Congo River in the DRC must be accelerated along with the long AC/DC Extra High Voltage (EHV) transmission infrastructure to transport this clean energy to South Africa and the rest of Africa.

4) Transmission interconnectors between Tanzania and Zambia/Malawi should be accelerated to access large amounts of low-cost hydropower from sources such as the 6 GW Grand Renaissance hydroelectric power plant on the Nile River in Ethiopia.

The above actions will not immediately solve South Africa’s energy problems, but they can provide the cleanest, most cost-effective, reliable and technically feasible direction for the energy sector in the short, medium and long term.

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