South Africa Workshop: Day 5

by Tom Fantham

Thursday 20th June 2019

Poor policy precedes petroleum peak plants

Day 5 saw us visiting different parts of the energy industry around the Western Cape. There was a feeling from some of the people we met that using coal for energy is the only way for South Africa to prosper and any other suggestion is foolish. We saw a contrast from the University of the Western Cape, that see’s past this reliance on coal however, to build a future based on renewables.

An early start to the day took us to Koeberg power station – South Africa’s only nuclear power station which produces 2GW. We were taken to the visitor station for a presentation where we learned that it was due to be decommissioned in 2024 but has had its life extended by 20 years. This is also where we discovered a resistance to renewables under the banner of “The sun doesn’t always shine, and wind doesn’t always blow”. To be fair to the to the lady giving the presentation, I don’t think she was aware warned that we are from the Energy Storage CDT. An interesting fact about the power station is that given that they must have an exclusion zone preventing building around the station and so they have chosen to make the land a Nature Reserve where lots of rare wildlife can be found. I think we were more excited by the fuel rod containment units that we could see on the side of the road though.

At Koeberg Power station

We then went to Ankerlig Power Station which is home to 9 OCGT (Open Cycle Gas Turbine) units, which they obviously run on gas diesel. Diesel!? Yep. They pay pump prices for the diesel where one OCGT unit can consume 40,000 litres in an hour. When the station is running flat out, they must constantly be refilling the tanks, resulting in queues of fuel tankers on site waiting to deliver their load. Fortunately, Eskom try their hardest to not run the plant due to the horrendous cost and so the queues of fuel trucks are rare.

James is unimpressed by the OCGT plants running diesel.

It appears that they are a result of a lack of forward-thinking policy and rather reactive policy. 92% of the country’s energy generation is from coal, where operators require several days’ notice to bring the power stations online, so we consider them as ‘non-dispatchable generation’. This has led to Eskom performing ‘load shedding’, where the system operator chooses to disconnect some areas of the grid in order to reduce the load to prevent blackouts. To counter this, Eskom has rushed to build OCGT plants to provide fast start-up generation to keep all the grid online. Unfortunately, there is little gas supply, and hence they burn diesel.

It seems strange to consider that the general population accepts coal, given its issues. Especially when resistance to renewables are due to the same issues that are already being faced. The future may look bright however (not just by keeping the lights on), with policy pledging the installation of nearly 2GW of storage. As Eskom (hopefully) begin to phase out coal generation to favour renewables, the storage required to maintain grid stability should already be in place.

One group that is hoping to have an involvement in storage in South Africa is the University of the Western Cape whom we visited after a short stop on the beach for lunch. We saw a facility researching Hydrogen vehicle technology – including fuel cells as well as a Metal Hydride storage solution for Hydrogen. They have modified 3 Post Office mopeds to run using a hydrogen fuel cell / lithium-ion battery hybrid. The Hydrogen system stores approximately 3kWh of energy with the battery storing 5kWh. This results in a range of 190km. We then visited an industrial unit where students ran a small-scale battery production facility. They could produce 18650 cylindrical cells as well as pouch cells.

Hydrogen-Battery hybrid Mopeds

All in all, the day raised many questions and showed a serious insight into some of the energy problems in South Africa. But it also showed that there are some good solutions, and the argument for renewables is very strong. All good things to go into our report for the next day, and the report which we will be producing off the back of our visit. 

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