South Africa: Presidency energy adviser says coal plants shutdown responsible for energy crisis

By Elena Kachkova in Johannesburg March 20, 2024

The swift shutting down of coal plants and the slow introduction of renewables has caused South Africa’s energy and economic crisis, energy adviser in the Presidency Silas Zimu charges.

Zimu’s assessment came in a keynote address on behalf of Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa at the opening of the Future Energy Show Africa. The continent’s largest renewable energy exhibition is taking place on March 18 – 20 at the Gallagher Convention Centre in Johannesburg.

“The Minister of Electricity decided that we’re not shutting down [old coal plants] because this is what started the 2023 load shedding,” Zimu said as quoted by Daily Maverick. “We’re supposed to keep them going and fast-track the introduction of renewables.”

However, as the media outlet points out, the decision to decommission some of the older plants did not escalate the 2023 power outages (load shedding). The introduction of higher stages of power cuts by the state-run power utility Eskom was a result of an insufficient supply of energy due to various reasons, including breakdowns.

Zimu was speaking to independent power producers (IPPs), government officials, large energy users, solution providers and academics at the energy exhibition. He said the problem was not about introducing renewables as the Presidency had always supported that. Zimu explained that while there were plans to shut down coal plants, not enough renewable energy was being introduced to replace them.

When Ramokgopa first started work at the Presidency a year ago, he visited 18 of Eskom’s power stations, discovering that “we’ve got a lot of supply that is installed, but half of it is not working,” Zimu was cited by Daily Maverick as saying.

Zimu said that in the face of the power crisis, they decided not to shut down the old power stations set to be decommissioned by 2035 under Eskom’s policy. The decision was taken to push back the closing date for older coal-fired power stations like Arnot, Camden, Hendrina and Grootvlei.

“I said, let’s take a risk; let’s not shut down these stations,” Zimu stated. “And believe you me, these stations when they’re running, they run better and more reliably than our latest Kusile and Medupi [coal-fired stations]. And they are running. So we saved the economy.”

Zimu observed that many other countries in the world have a similar problem with electricity demand exceeding what they can produce.

“But none of them do what a lot of them tell us to do. They’re saying, shut down your coal stations,” he said, “but what they do in their countries, they’re fixing the current assets.”

Zimu noted that South Africa’s generation system reliability depended on existing infrastructure: “Our coal generation keeps us going… If you look at the World Energy Outlook, the whole world is still reliant on coal.”

The energy adviser also announced that Africa’s first carbon capture technology, funded by the Department of Science and Innovation, would be launched on Wednesday (March 20) at Kelvin Power Station.

“Our dream is that that can then be rolled out to a few of the coal stations so that we don’t have to shut them down,” said Zimu.

Challenges with renewables

Addressing South Africa’s challenges with renewable energy generation, Zimu explained that the “lightning-speed shutting down of coal stations and snail speed of introduction of renewables into the grid” was what had hit the country’s economy.

“What needs to be done to save the economy is to fast-track the renewables,” he said, acknowledging the threat of climate change. This, he added, would include new technologies such as solar, wind, fuel-cell and nuclear.

Under the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPP), which was introduced 13 years ago, only 6,200 MW of generation capacity has been added.

According to Zimu, the last renewables connected to the grid were from REIPPPP bid window four (BW4). The programme signed its fifth round at the end of 2022 but those projects totalling 2,583 MW are expected to be added to the grid only in 2025.

Zimu said the problem with rolling out renewables was that the transmission grid was tied up, especially in the Northern Cape where there were many solar investments, writes Daily Maverick.

“And as we’re speaking today, solar companies and developers are still applying for grid access… but we know there is no grid access.”

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