YONELA DIKO: What can be done about South Africa's energy insecurity?


South Africa has become energy insecure. The constant disruption to the electricity supply and grinding impact to our economic activity and social life is a painful reminder of our failure to secure a future of adequate and reliable energy supply.

While energy demand has grown across the world as a result of expanding economies and growing populations, what makes the South African case troubling, save for the first 15 years of our new dispensation, is that our economy has not been growing and there has been no outstanding income growth in our population or new endeavors that have been energy intensive.

This poses an uncomfortable question as to why South Africa has become so energy insecure and what can we do about it.

How is South Africa powered?
South Africa's energy supply is heavily dependent on coal. According to the department of energy, 77% of our primary energy is powered by it. It is cheap to mine and the coal industry is well developed.

The large coal industry has resulted in an export industry that accounts for 28% of all coal production. South Africa also has enough coal, estimated by the Energy Department, to likely last another 50 years.

There are concerns in this regard. Given the current price of coal and documented disruptions in coal supply, does it make sense to service the world while home is in the dark?

This also speaks to the risk in coal supply, premised by the reality that 11 mines are said to be responsible for 70% of all coal production. The impact of just one coal mine unable to meet its coal production and demands is dire.

Energy use
Every aspect of our economy needs energy. From food production, manufacturing and transportation to heating and lighting, it affects every aspect of our lives. Energy is at the core of our sustainable development.

The ability to guarantee the continuation of these activities without energy disruption is quintessential energy security. That energy must also be affordable to all citizens and businesses.

More importantly is the ability of our energy system to respond to occasional accidents and shocks promptly and adequately without much disruption in supply. This speaks to reliability and energy reserves.

Every other day our national electricity supplier, Eskom, has been giving us one reason or another for the excruciating electricity power cuts, effectively telling us they do not have capacity to respond to accidents, shocks to the system or increasing electricity demands.

This means our country does not have enough energy to both meet our general energy demands and to store enough power for any unforeseeable disruptions.

Part of answering the question of energy reliability is knowing alternatives energy sources and their quantities a country has beyond coal. We also need to know how much of the raw material is ready to be used to meet energy needs. Naturally, countries that are highly endowed with energy sources have more reliable energy supply. Given the abundance in our coal reserves, South Africa should be energy secure.

Energy mix
Like other countries, we are facing an ever increasing demand for electricity. This has a heavier impact on poor people as prices of electricity continue to soar, as well as on the country's ability to transform. Our grid is unstable and much electricity we produce is lost at storage.

According to South Africa’s latest electricity plan, the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP 2018) the expected addition to the grid by 2030 is:

  • 9.5GW wind;

  • 6.8GW solar;

  • 8.1GW gas;

  • 6.7GW coal; and

  • 2.5GW hydropower.

This will result in slight reduction in coal dependency, with coal producing:

  • 64% of energy;

  • wind 13%;

  • solar 8%;

  • nuclear 4%,

  • hydropower 3%; and

  • gas 1%.

Year 2030 is too far. We are drowning now. What is to be done?

Every expert agrees that countries that have a wide energy mix and less dependency on non-renewable energies are more energy secure. Such countries are better placed to respond to energy disruptions and shocks.

It has become ever important to look into an energy mix alternatives that involves '"fuels such as ethanol, natural gas, biodiesel, hydrogen, propane, methanol and ... battery-powered electric and fuel-cell assets".

Energy security is dependent on a diversified power supply. With increasing demand and more energy intensive projects, getting energy from multiple sources is the only way to guarantee energy security.

Although we have enough coal to last a few generations, a process of diversification needs to happen much faster, both for security reasons and for the environment.

Renewable energy resources
It is now necessary for our economic survival to invest more in energy production and transmission, accompanied by efficiency in the current energy use, use of more technology in the current energy grids and integration of renewable energies such as wind, solar and geothermal energies into our energy pool. This means we need new partners and new investments who will ensure we have some competition so we can reduce energy costs to customers and reduce wastage. We need to look beyond our country for experienced partners to collaborate in ensuring we have enough supply.

We may be comfortable today in the supplies of coal and oil, but these are finite resources. We have no choice but to look into renewable energy resources, not only to diversify our energy supply but for long term sustainability of our economies.

There is also enough room for countries to work together to meet their energy challenges.

How do we ensure we are energy secure?
South Africa has been engaged in a seemingly unending process of upgrading existing energy infrastructure after an inexplicable lack of maintenance for years of high economic growth. Upgrading of existing infrastructure is non-negotiable and given how far behind we are, there should be no room for misuse of funding and incompetency.

The country has also invested billions of rands in building new infrastructure again after years of an expanding economy, growing population and ever growing energy demands. The wastage that is being revealed at the Zondo Commission at our state-owned energy supplying company Eskom is a huge set back. The corruption in the development of power stations like Kusile and Medupi is a double betrayal, after years of rejecting advice to invest in more power plants.

We need to be innovative, with the primary purpose being to reduce the energy burden on the grid. Other energy-consuming activities and structures could use other power sources, preferably cleaner and renewable. We need some local energy projects to power communities.

We need to seriously look into biomass, solar, wind, hydropower and geothermal energy. If we can generate about 30% of our electricity through renewables by 2030, we would have set ourselves for a much brighter future that also sustains our natural habitat.

Still, an aggressive programme of exploration, extraction, and processing new energy resources must be undertaken in earnest. We need to develop new transmission infrastructure.

Energy efficiency
Our country also needs to engage in an energy efficiency programme that aims to drastically reduce energy use with various strategies that have been proven to work. These include encouraging all new buildings, especially businesses, to build different and more technology that relies less on fuel, and encourage households to power their homes with fewer non-renewable energy sources.

According to the International Energy Agency, "energy efficiency has saved an additional 37 exajoules of final energy use in the IEA countries and other major economies and that globally, over this period, efficiency improvements prevented about 12% more energy use".

Ultimately, the demand for electricity, met with the finite sources of energy currently, will result in the depletion of these resources. We must increase the number of our energy sources for the sake of our energy security. All sources - oil, natural gas, hydropower, nuclear, wind and coal - need to be part of our energy mix.

Our government has a duty to incentivise private investments to play a greater part in producing reliable and safe energy sources.

We have a duty, individually and collectively, to embark on energy efficient means of leading our lives.

Yonela Diko is the former spokesperson to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. You can follow him on @yonela_diko.

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