President Jacob Zuma and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during bilateral Talks in May 2013. Several rounds of discussions included the subject of nuclear energy. Picture: GCIS
President Jacob Zuma and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during bilateral Talks in May 2013. Several rounds of discussions included the subject of nuclear energy. Picture: GCIS

THE imminent revival of the Integrated Energy Planning (IEP) process, which allows the public to give its views on what South Africa’s future energy mix should be, provides an opportunity to move well beyond conservative and fatalistic thinking.

This is the view of energy expert Richard Worthington, who also felt that renewable energy technologies should be prioritised, immediately and ambitiously, and that their share in the total energy mix should be made as large as possible in the long term. “There is no other decision for which there is such a compelling case, with such a broad range of benefits and no down side.”

Mr Worthington was speaking on Friday at a seminar at Wits University discussing his latest report, The Tyranny of Realism, which was supported by the British High Commission in South Africa. The report was part of a broader project undertaken by Project 90 by 2030, a nonprofit organisation that aims to change the way South Africans live and relate to the environment.

President Jacob Zuma’s recent state of the nation speech placed high importance on energy for economic growth, and included a statement that nuclear energy and shale gas would be an important part of the mix. South Africa presently derives more than 90% of its electricity from ageing coal-fired power stations, which are heavy emitters of greenhouse gases.

The Department of Energy is compiling an IEP report due for submission to the Cabinet in the last quarter of this year. The IEP has to be completed before the government updates its Integrated Resource Plan 2010 on how it will generate electricity in future.

What drives SA nuclear power calls?

Mr Worthington questioned whether public debate around the IEP would have any influence on decision making or whether the deals were happening elsewhere.

For example, was the government’s decision to move ahead on new nuclear power being made by Mr Zuma and Russian President Vladimir Putin or was it being driven by the need to meet the country’s high energy demand?

He said current consensus, which justified using extractive energy resources to maintain concentrations of wealth, was “callous and self-serving”. Over the long term, South Africa would have to phase out fossil fuel use and the sooner this began, the less disruptive and costly the transition would be.

Asked to give the fossil fuel industry’s point of view, Xavier Prevost, senior coal analyst at XMP Consulting, referred to recent articles in publications in Europe, Australia and the US that pointed out, among other things, that coal was more widely distributed around the world than any other energy source and generally cheaper.

Developing countries like China and India had far more coal than gas. Commentators also argued the solution was not to ban coal but to use technology to reduce coal’s carbon emissions.

Wind and solar energy

While it was relatively easy to push up the share of wind and solar energy from a very low base, it would become harder to find good sites over time, and as these renewable power sources took over coal’s share of energy generation, coal would become even cheaper.

Mr Worthington said options that were not being discussed in the IEP, and should be, were to aim for even lower carbon emissions than the current band considered pragmatic, or to phase out fossil fuels or the internal combustion engine entirely.

He also said he had been assured by the department that another public workshop on the IEP would be held shortly, though the timing was not clear.