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The Rational Path Is A Blend Of Nuclear And Renewables

SA’s current nuclear plans present an expansion of large scale, reliable, clean supply on which strong growth in specific renewable technologies can occur.

23/03/2017 03:59 SAST | Updated 23/03/2017 07:31 SAST
Waldo Swiegers/ Bloomberg/ Getty Images

In arguing that nuclear energy is being forced on the South African people, Greenpeace campaigner Penny Jane Cook calls for "techno-economic rationality". That's reasonable provided we grasp the technical requirements, the economic realities, and place this in a realistic context.

Cook achieves none of the above. Her conclusions are formed on the basis of one simplistic metric: the levelised cost of electricity production. When Cook asks us to consider that "today solar PV and wind energy are the cheapest technology options available for generating electricity" she makes the error of treating electricity as a fungible product, where you simply buy at the cheapest prices until you have enough of what you want.

Electricity may be a product, but it is delivered via a system that provides an essential service. The challenge for South Africa is not merely to procure large volumes of cheaply generated electricity; it is to build an electricity system that is i) fully reliable ii) scalable to current and future needs including huge growth to raise millions from abject poverty iii) affordable for a range of customers with a range of needs and iv) as clean as possible.

Utilising wind and solar photovoltaic generation means accommodating the variability of these energy sources, on scales ranging from five minutes to hours, days, seasons, years and even decades. It means building the additional transmission and distribution networks to move the supply from their often remote and distributed catchments to the actual locations of demand. It means maintaining system frequency within strict tolerances, a service provided by turbine-based generation (fossil, hydro, nuclear) but not wind or solar PV generation. None of the above is considered in the levelised cost.

In South Africa, renewable sources will not be bolted on to an existing, mature, reliable system. From today to 2050, South Africa's system must keep pace with the needs of a nation where population will grow ~24 percent from 2015 to 2050, only 42 percent of the working age population is currently employed and the existing network infrastructure is relatively fragile. That is a taste of the techno-economic rationality Cook asks us to lean on.

We must not use South Africa as a battlefield to prosecute ideological energy agendas as Greenpeace would have us do. There is huge potential for greater use of renewable energy in South Africa, notably solar hot water systems, roof-top PV and on-shore wind. The penetration and benefits of those technologies can be optimised when they are blended with a base of reliable, synchronous generation, with the necessary support of a strong transmission and distribution network. If climate change is an urgent challenge, as Bright New World believes it is, we need to maximise the role of nuclear in that base load role, over and above coal generation. Cook appears to argue for precisely the opposite, demonstrating again that Big Green is more anti-nuclear than pro-environment.

South Africa's current nuclear plans represent much-needed expansion of large scale, reliable, clean supply upon which strong growth in specific renewable technologies can occur. Those with a preference for renewables must be cautious: if they make the mistake of arguing they can do everything, they will just as likely end up with next to nothing; a small piece of a shrinking energy pie in a floundering economy.