Fossil Fuels RE

Setting up renewables as the ‘enemy’ of fossil fuel is a straw man

Setting up renewables as the ‘enemy’ of fossil fuel is a straw man

Solar and wind energy are enemies to nobody, but are projected as such by those seeking to justify their ongoing refusal to engage in rational and inclusive deliberation of the relative merits of energy development options into the future. Fully understanding the opportunities among our abundant range of energy resources is exactly what integrated energy planning is designed to achieve.

Not content with the role for coal that is assured by incumbency in South Africa’s energy system, the coal lobby (a catch-all that would require a separate article to unpack, but is not inconspicuous) is waging a concerted campaign of denial regarding the costs, technological prospects and diminishing social licence of this dirtiest of fossil fuels.

Once again (in a recent piece quoted below) we have someone presenting themselves as an independent expert, declaring that we cannot give up coal overnight – as if anybody is actually suggesting we could. This strategy of stating the obvious, as if others were denying it, is a disingenuous attempt to dismiss the real critique of ongoing investment in the coal industry, which in the first instance is that any such investment should take place in the context of a rational and holistic energy strategy.

In making the case for planning the phase-out of coal combustion, starting in the electricity sector, one could begin with insisting on implementation of the National Energy Act (2008), which sets out the rationale and requirements for Integrated Energy Planning (IEP). This is supposed to provide the basis for the Integrated Resource Planning (IRP) process for the national electricity system, as a growing part of the energy sector as a whole.

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There is no need to caution against rapid deployment of renewable energy (RE) technologies to make a case for investing in ongoing coal supply for well over a decade; the case is clear, though not yet the most cost-effective strategy. To suggest that proponents of concerted development of RE for a rapid transition are taking an antagonistic position, or fostering an opposition between RE and coal, is a projection behind which incumbent vested interests continue to dig in.

Whether unconsciously channeling Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, or more knowingly currying favour, Boston Consulting Group MD and partner Tycho Möncks recently told Engineering News“Very often the discussion is that coal and renewables are enemies – that it’s either one or the other; and I don’t think that’s the right mindset [to have].”

Why would we need a high-flying consultant to tell us that different primary energy resources are not enemies? It is only people who are committed to extending the use of fossil energy resources with disregard for the consequences – those who refuse to contemplate any phase-out of coal (or deliberate an appropriate role for natural gas) – that are looking for an enemy.

Solar and wind energy are enemies to nobody, but are projected as such by those seeking to justify their ongoing refusal to engage in rational and inclusive deliberation of the relative merits of energy development options into the future. Fully understanding the opportunities among our abundant range of energy resources, their social costs and benefits in a rapidly changing environment, is exactly what integrated energy planning is designed to achieve.

It is no accident that the legally binding character of legislation that requires IEP, as an ongoing and iterative process, has not been activated by any minister in the 12 years since the National Energy Act was passed by Parliament. 

Developing plans for all available energy value chains, and treating them all as necessary and equally value-adding avenues to pursue economic growth, is neither strategic nor responsible. Insisting that pursuing “an energy mix” constitutes a policy does not make it so. To say “we want it all, in the face of South Africa’s plethora of primary energy resource abundance”, is, in effect, no more helpful than saying, “we don’t know what we want”.

A nifty final clause provides that sections will only become legally binding when the minister so declares. This is why the document published in the Government Gazette four years ago, purporting to be an Integrated Energy Plan, has not been formally challenged.

It was in 2007 under minister Buyelwa Sonjica that the department of energy suspended a participatory IEP process in favour of advancing resource-specific “sectoral plans” – including a Coal Road Map, Gas Utilisation Master Plan, Liquid Fuels Investment Strategy, etc. While an IEP process was initiated roughly when the electricity IRP2010 was completed, and a draft published in 2012, today we are still faced with an array of sector-specific aspirations and development initiatives (the official who persuaded Sonjica to put the IEP process “into abeyance” is the same Nhlanhla Gumede who was recently appointed by Mantashe to the National Regulator, now responsible for electricity).

Developing plans for all available energy value chains, and treating them all as necessary and equally value-adding avenues to pursue economic growth, is neither strategic nor responsible. Insisting that pursuing “an energy mix” constitutes a policy does not make it so. To say “we want it all, in the face of South Africa’s plethora of primary energy resource abundance”, is, in effect, no more helpful than saying, “we don’t know what we want”.

The Economic Recovery Plan being discussed in Nedlac so far seems to follow the same pattern. Priorities have apparently been grouped under a dozen line items, but the only thing that doesn’t feature among all the energy options being promoted, is explicit provision for energy efficiency (though demand-side management is arguably implicit in generic support for “the green economy”).

It may not be accidental that an absence of transparent and integrated planning creates arbitrage opportunities for politicians and government officials charged with facilitating investment. Similarly, a predilection for mega-projects – under the auspices of a popular mandate for a developmental state, but also conducive to mega kickbacks – comes with an aversion to detailed analysis and risk management. Opportunities for patronage and leverage are curtailed by prioritisation.

Despite exhaustive contemporary analysis of the deteriorating business case for coal-fired power, both nationally and internationally and without taking into account the externalised costs to polluted communities and future generations, interest groups like the Minerals Council still argue for sustaining or even increasing coal mining indefinitely (a recent presentation by their Prof Rosemary Falcon is particularly chilling in its detachment from physical realities of the 21st century, but typical of the delusions peddled by the World Coal Association).

The localisation of manufacturing of renewable energy technologies is only feasible with a large and unthrottled project pipeline, whatever the ownership and governance arrangements are, to ensure that the electricity system is a public service.

Möncks from Boston Consulting Group (BCS) again echoes Mantashe when he “… encourages coal industry stakeholders to remain as cost-competitive and efficient as possible, while applying carbon-friendly technologies, so that the commodity may continue to remain relevant and encourage foreign direct investment into South Africa”.

However, it is clear that any technology options for reducing local and/or global impacts of coal combustion involve additional costs (and resource use, including water) and thus further deterioration of any business case beyond our immediate dependence. Those seeking to prolong the profits available through the coal value chain therefore need to redirect attention… to rebuke the alternatives and proponents thereof as unreasonable, antagonistic or self-seeking.

Such a narrative from a veteran of mining unions and the minerals/energy complex, a leader of the SACP as well as the ANC, may be lamentable in the bigger picture, but is quite understandable (arguably strategically astute, depending on your perspective). The fact that it was his government that manoeuvred the renewable energy industry into the role of IPPs – as a fortuitous opportunity for getting additional capacity built quickly and gaining some green credibility internationally, while coal mega-projects floundered – is understandably forgotten, given that this opportunity was subsequently throttled, (though it remains a popular target of many unionists).

However, when such a narrative is propagated by an MD of a consultancy (BCS) that is participating in research and analysis of South Africa’s potential pathways to a zero-carbon economy, one must question how vagaries like “carbon-friendly technologies” could be reconciled with science-based analysis and risk assessment. 

If we fail to prioritise and make some strategic choices, we don’t have a coherent policy and won’t mobilise sufficient capital to develop a modern electricity system that can extend basic services to all.

Financing the development of our electricity system becomes more viable and attractive if we have a coherent policy and plan, including for electrification of transport, which in integrated planning would be linked to reducing oil imports. 

The localisation of manufacturing of renewable energy technologies is only feasible with a large and unthrottled project pipeline, whatever the ownership and governance arrangements are, to ensure that the electricity system is a public service.

When politicians favour a laissez-faire approach to investment and development options – seeking to keep all avenues open – such short-sighted opportunism should not be encouraged by consultants, especially when purporting to support science-based planning for a just transition to a sustainable energy system. DM

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