South Africa turning greener

South Africa turning greener

Coal v Renewables

Eskom, for a century or more South Africa’s energy utility, has finally taken a first few tentative steps to broaden the electricity generation sector to include the private sector – but so far limited to the renewables component.

Coal and other fossil-burning media will remain the exclusive preserve of the state-owned utility. It is a small enough step, seeing that coal-fired generation will provide over 90% of South Africa’s electricity needs for the foreseeable future, but it is one that eco-warriors Greenpeace, have applauded.

Greenpeace Africa’s Melita Steele, a coal specialist, says the organisation supports new producers entering the electricity sector because, as a monopoly, the utility “has too much freedom and not enough accountability and transparency and that, we believe, is a huge problem”.

Steele adds: “The problem also is that the independent power producers are itching to be a part of Eskom’s stated expansion of coalfired power production, and they could be more difficult to regulate than would Eskom.” South Africa has enough coal reserves to light up the region for a century or more, and countries in the neighbourhood, especially Botswana, Swaziland, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, have deposits sufficient for another hundred years or more.

Eskom is building two of the world’s biggest coal-fired power stations – Medupi and Kesile – and is talking about a third coalfired mega-installation, probably hosted by the Waterberg coal field near the Botswana border.

“So we’re heading for a perfect storm of coal expansion and a minimal increase of renewable energy,” observes Steele. “Greenpeace would rather see greater expansion of renewable energy driven by both the private and public sectors. Even though renewables’ development costs at the outset would be high, economies of scale would see a cost levelling out.

And, anyway, when you look at the true cost of coal, it is not as cheap as people think, and we could reach grid parity quite soon. The levelised cost of wind power is actually cheaper than Medupi.” South Africa needs more electricity in a hurry: already Eskom is warning that energy rationing this winter is an odds-on bet and new power supplies from delay-plagued Medupi, due to have started flowing last December, probably won’t be commissioned much before the end of this year.


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Written by Tom Nevin

Tom Nevin is a South African journalist, researcher and author and contributes to a selection of publications in South Africa and abroad. He is associate editor of London-based African Business and editor of Business Word Botswana. He is leading a programme that actively promotes small and micro power projects as a first step in encouraging the economic upliftment of the continent rural poor.

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