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Gwede Mantashe punts nuclear and Karoo shale gas in address to NUM

Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe. (Photo: Gallo Images / The Times / Lauren Mulligan)
By Ed Stoddard
26 Oct 2021 21

Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe again hit the nuke button during an address to the policy conference of the National Union of Mineworkers, saying that nuclear power remains ‘the leading candidate’ to keep the lights on. And he reiterated his support for shale gas and fracking in the Karoo.

Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe maintained his pro-nuclear stance and reiterated his scepticism of green energy ahead of the next big UN climate conference that begins on Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland. 

“We are insisting on security of energy supply while reducing carbon emissions. We are insisting that a combination of energy technologies is the only viable option during the transition. What we are witnessing in China, India, UK and Europe will be too complex for a smaller economy like ours to manage,” Mantashe said in prepared remarks to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) policy conference in East London on Tuesday. 

Mantashe, who once headed NUM, was preaching to the converted. The union, concerned about its membership in the coal sector, has not been enthusiastic about clean energy initiatives — and South Africa can hardly switch off its coal-fired power plants overnight, which is why the operative word is “transition”.

One also has to have sympathy for coal miners and the communities that depend on them. But the writing is increasingly on the wall for the coal sector, which is slowly being starved of investment capital. And in the long run, South African products will only be globally competitive if the carbon footprint in their production chain is low. Reluctance to embrace this transition will have far higher social and economic costs down the road. 

“Renewables will only be sustainable if they combine with a technology that provides base load. The leading candidate is nuclear in this regard. The current load shedding trend of it being at night is simple proof that the increase in renewables is making a serious impact. At night renewables are not sustainable, in particular solar energy. Our urgent attention should be on base load technologies,” Mantashe said. 

The minister’s embrace of nuclear power makes little economic sense. South Africa’s Treasury simply does not have the space to fund such projects, which inevitably overrun their initial cost estimates.

“When it comes to building a nuclear power plant in the United States – even of a well-known design — the total bill is often three times as high as expected,” an MIT research team concluded last year.

Read: Building nuclear power plants

That’s in the US. Imagine the debacle that would unfold in South Africa, not to mention the whiff of corruption, if Moscow was behind the project. 

Mantashe also made a punt for shale gas in the Karoo. 

“The discovery of gas in South Africa must be factored in the transition. Shale gas in the Karoo has been scientifically proven. The Total Gas discovery is promising to be a game-changer in our economy,” he said. 

But shale gas extraction — which involves “fracking” technology — has been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and the collapse in oil prices last year. Even the spectacular rebound in global oil prices this year has not unleashed a big new wave of investment into the sector. 

A recent BloombergNEF report forecast that US shale oil production will only expand at a “modest rate” over the next 18 months, as producers pay down debt and give cash back to shareholders rather than invest in new drilling projects.

Read: US shale drillers show restraint as oil prices rally, adding to OPEC leverage 

In such a climate, outside investors are hardly going to pile into South African shale gas assets. Fracking is water-intensive, and the Karoo is hardly famed for its wetness.

South Africa urgently needs new power capacity now, and solar power plants, as it happens, can be erected relatively fast. Anglo American Platinum, for example, plans to begin constructing a 100MW photovoltaic plant in Limpopo in the fourth quarter of next year, with the aim for the plant to be turning sunshine into power by the end of 2023.

That’s about a year from the start of construction to finish. And while it’s not a 1,500MW nuclear or coal power plant, one imagines that 15 of them could be erected in different places in the space of a year if the investment environment was ripe and the politics were greener. 

That much nuclear or coal power is hardly going to be plugged into the grid at that kind of pace. Just sayin’ … DM/BM

Absa OBP

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All Comments 21

  • This old carbon dinosaur is working hard to keep energy centralised. His stalinist mindset is choking innovation and transition to equity and sustainability. Before speaking of nuclear he should rather get Medupi and Kusile running optimally and on budget!! But alas, these old farts have no concept of cost, monetary and future generations.
    Decentralise energy and use blockchain technology to manage it. Re-skill the workforce and create new industries, from the ground up. Use the billions earmarked for nuclear to subsidise public-private investments. Create an environment of innovation!

    • Creating an environment for innovation by definition means you lose some control of process and outcomes. Never gonna happen with this lot. The National Democratic Revolution, which lies at the heart of this government’s DNA, demands ever greater party/state (essentially the same thing for Gwede) control.

    • Mr M evidently doesn’t understand the rationale of doing load-shedding at night. It is NOT because our demand for power is high at night (it isn’t), it is to minimise the impact on businesses, most of which operate during the day!
      Nuclear power stations are baseload generators, but they are NOT suitable for agile load-following to complement the very sharp ramp-up and ramp-down nature of solar PV.
      Better load-following technologies are: energy storage such batteries (especially flow batteries) and pumped water facilities (like Ingula), smart grids, CSP, and, if we can afford the carbon impact, Closed Circuit Gas Turbines.

      • “Nuclear power stations … are NOT suitable for agile load-following”
        Oh dear. That old canard. It simply isn’t true.

        PWR reactors are based on the submarine design, which can shutdown in seconds, and ramp up from 20% to 100% in a few minutes.
        The fact that most nuclear power plants were designed as baseload stations, where power output isn’t required, does NOT mean that the technology is incapable of being fully dispatchable.

        • Sorry. First post missing a word: … where power output VARIATION isn’t required …
          Second post should have been a reply to Stalker, not myself!

          DM, how about bringing back the facility to edit one’s posts?

  • The glaring problem with 1500MW of Photovoltaic energy is that it is guaranteed to stop generating energy at night. And no batteries currently exist that can run a country or even a large city for a whole night.

    I am a huge supporter of renewable energy. But anyone who pushes renewable energy without simultaneously pushing for gas power to operate on windless nights is ignorant of energy systems and should not be writing articles on energy policy.

    • We will get there, one day. But at present, PV generating power for 6 hours per day and batteries to provide full load for the remaining 18 hours simply isn’t economic. Yet.

      • Not to mention that today, 27 Oct 2021, most of the solar fields are covered in cloud. I doubt batteries will ever be cost effective at 100GWh scale. And how many GWh would we need for unusually bad weather events? We need about 30GWh per hour to run SA, so ten hours backup is 300GWh – but I have lived off grid on solar for almost 20 years and I typically aim for 5 DAYS storage. 5 DAYS of storage in the form of batteries brings you to around 3000GWh of batteries which would cost in the region of R10 trillion! For batteries that would have to be replaced in 15 years time! People who talk about batteries as a solution need to do the maths…

        Much better to have a balance between batteries, CSP storage, pump storage and then gas as a backup for the four windless nights we have each year. The emissions from occasional use of gas backup would be minimal and would avoid a fortune being spent on batteries.

  • Large areas of the Northern Cape and the Karoo are going to become virtually uninhabitable as a result of global warming. However, they have an abundance of sun and we should be going down the green hydrogen route as fast as possible. The hydrogen can be stored and used to produce power at night. Nuclear may have a part to play but not mega stations but small distributed nuclear generators as are found in icebreakers and submarines. The ANC would never be able to manage alarge nuclear power project without having their fingers in the pie.

    • Quite. Don’t trust the ANC with any mega projects, ever again.

      I’m not sure about green hydrogen, It is horribly inefficient.

      Small distributed nuclear generators are a sensible alternative, but the ANC won’t go for them, as there is no opportunity for theft.

  • 100% with Mantashe, stand your ground! Private entities can go ahead and invest in so called green but unreliable energy like Anglo is doing. Don’t gamble with the country’s base load, in fact revive any coal power station that still has life and crank it up.

  • Really, there should be a “best before” date for many politicians and policy makers… we’re supposed to learn from our past and present, not perpetuate it!
    Unfortunately the governing party has a trust deficit and proven themselves incapable of seeing something through from start to finish, without a feeding trough, so we have little faith in all the wheezy words.
    Future generations will have access to technologies we have not dreamed of yet, so making them pay for these outdated old ideas is criminal… we must plan for a sustainable future for our children and their children!

  • There is no point in commenting on this article. RamaDoLittle’s anchor, Gwede, is doing great damage to the party. Carry on, clown.

      • So what do you propose be done on the four windless nights we have every year? Or on the days – like yesterday – when cloud was covering most of the solar fields? Or when wind speeds drop – as has happened this year across Europe leading to a power crisis there. Do you honestly think you can run a country on batteries?

        I have lived off-grid on solar for 20 years and I’ve installed countless solar systems. At a national level it is IMPOSSIBLE to promote wind and solar at scale without pushing gas as a backup at the same time. There are no batteries that come close to being both affordable and able to run a country for a whole night.