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