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19 March 2020

South Africa puts storage, wind and Solar at heart of energy plan

South Africa’s National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA) has put out an energy plan for public comment, and its 130 plus page report shows how it is so tough for African countries to acquire more electrical energy which is dominated by renewables. The Regulator is bound by national laws to consult with the public on each appropriation of energy.

The plan is asking approval for 11.3 GW of new generation, with 4.5 GW of it being coal and gas. The plan was put together by the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy and includes costing data on things like water for thermal turbines, and clean-up of fossil fuel plants, in all the costings.

On the surface of it, it is pretty pro-renewables with 6.8 GW from wind and solar, a massive 513 MW of storage immediately and a further 1.5 GW of storage later, but then adds 3 GW of gas turbines and 1.5 GW of fresh coal. On the surface of it you might think that the coal will end up as a stranded asset by 2050, and the gas turbines the same. When you look up the gazette entry in the country’s Integrated Resource Plan to 2030, the coal and gas are purely adopted to minimize the risk both of load shedding and also to reduce the use of existing diesel peaking plants, which are currently widely and frequently used to prevent widespread disruption.

Most of the wind resource appears to be onshore, and if this plan is passed, this should create a rush of wind turbine makers and developers to begin building up resources in South Africa, including Chinese firms.

Certainly it looks like a more adventurous use of battery could do away with more thermal facilities, and in the fullness of time it looks like South Africa is saying, “let us get some experience with over 500 MW of storage, and next time around perhaps we can rely on it more.”

But the fresh coal plant is mostly about having some baseload still in place for when the country retires many of its existing coal power plants in the period from 2019 to 2030 and there are more coming in the run up to 2050.

The country plans to turn off some 9.8 GW more of coal by 2030, starting with 2.3 GW last year and it will replace that with just a 750 MW in 2023, and another 750 MW in 2027. It has one nuclear plant being refreshed to be ready with 1.8 GW in 2024, and it is allowing itself ten years to build a single further hydro capacity by 2030.

The outcome still leaves South Africa on 43% coal by 2030, but there remains sufficient time to move away from coal and the minimal additional gas turbines by 2050 as long as the grid is modernizing, and they are learning how to co-ordinate battery and intermittent supply. The use of storage has not been entirely specified in terms of technology, but while we would have thought that pumped hydro would be ideal in this type of terrain, the document insists this is battery storage and mentions compressed-air energy storage, fly wheels, and hydrogen fuel cells – so it should give a significant time period to explore and develop new types of GW class batteries in the region or create a green hydrogen industry. We know from discussions with Highview in the UK, that it has identified situations in south Africa where its GW class Cryobattery could be installed in partnership with Spain’s TSK engineering, so clearly there is an RFP or two doing the rounds here. And once South Africa doubles down on storage in the 2029 time frame, on this plan, it will be in a much better position to use intermittent renewables on its grid.

Significant stakeholders and the public are now being asked if the capacity is enough, to deliver uninterrupted supply, are these the right technologies, and will supply be sufficiently secure? One question is whether or not storage should even be included in the resources, how big each instance might be and which technology should it be and of course a discussion of affordability and what this might do to the price of electricity in the country, as well as the socio-economic impact of using so much wind and solar in the mix.