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Large-scale, frequently-used gas-fired power is not the right option to solve South Africa’s energy woes, writes Richard Halsey.
Karpowership is fuming. And not because it is burning gas. When South Africa’s Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy announced in early June that power purchase agreements had been signed for only three of 11 planned emergency power projects—intended to rapidly fill the country’s energy gap—the Turkish energy firm Karpowership was quick to point fingers for their failure to be on the list.
In a furious statement, the company blamed several government departments and agencies for their inability to get the required authorisations to develop ship mounted gas plants in three South African harbors.
The horse has bolted
As frustrating as this must be, the reality is that the horse has long since bolted, not just for Karpowership, but for any large-scale project that uses gas for electricity generation. Even if the government signed off the deals with Karpowership and its various legal challenges were resolved, such projects would still not make sense.
With more and more analysis done into the need for gas in South Africa, it has become increasingly clear that investing in the sort of gas-fired power plants envisioned in the country’s draft Gas Master Plan—a roadmap for gas implementation—is not just unnecessary, but also undesirable.
At the heart of the problem with the proposed Karpowership deals is the requirement that state-owned utility Eskom—and by extension the consumer—would need to pay for at least 50% of available power each year, for 20 years. This is a far cry from the intended role of gas to balance renewable energy when there is reduced sun or wind.
What’s more, such high utilisation rates of the proposed Karpowership plants are a massive red flag, as is the type of other gas plants being planned in South Africa. Gas plants suited to running for regular, long periods of time are called combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs). It comes as little surprise that all of the proposed large plants at Richards Bay and Coega are also CCGTs.
But the fact is, South Africa does not need large-scale, frequently used gas-fired power plants to transition away from coal, and independent research has repeatedly shown that the government should avoid developing the power system based on gas.
A recent analysis by Meridian Economics shows that there is no climate change or economic justification for building large gas-to-power plants in South Africa that run as frequently as Karpowership’s floating generators. In fact, their research found that “forcing in large-scale gas will displace renewables, increase emissions and cost of electricity”. This is particularly important—big gas ambitions will actually do the opposite of its intended role in South Africa’s energy transition. In short, fossil gas is no longer a rational replacement for coal on a path to renewables.
Even the Boston Consulting Group, who modelled the need for gas-fired power for the National Business Initiative found that South Africa’s electricity’s system only needs “limited volumes [of gas] with a flexible and short payback [liquefied natural gas] (LNG) infrastructure” in the short run, and “a plan to replace gas with batteries (for short-term balancing) and green hydrogen (for seasonal balancing) from 2030 onwards, or as soon as reasonable cost parity can be achieved”. In other words, there is no point building an extensive pipeline network, or gas plants that run too frequently and are tied to long-term contracts for 20 years.
Eskom is also starting to acknowledge the realities. In their System Outlook from May 11, the current plans for repowering the Komati coal power plant include solar, wind, and battery storage. A possible gas plant is described as “not cost competitive at this stage”.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) recommended in March that the government hold off on gas-to-power investment for now, and rather focus on areas where there is already consensus to improve electricity supply. The IISD view is based on the rapidly changing technology options, increasing climate change pressure, and the state of development of the South African power system—which has no existing gas-to-power infrastructure and only a tiny proportion of renewable energy. Other energy analysts both locally and internationally believe that there will never be a requirement for fossil gas in the power systems of the future.
Despite all the contestation around how much gas is needed and when, there is a clear trend emerging among those involved in independent research; South Africa will need much less gas than government initially anticipated, and the country needs to be cautious about over-investing in technology that will be obsolete in the next decade or two. With the world changing rapidly, it has become clear that introducing a new fossil fuel into South Africa’s power system comes with major economic and environmental risks.
Richard Halsey is policy advisor on the South African energy team at the International Institute for Sustainable Development.