Just how just is our energy transition?

With the crisis in Ukraine, the world is suddenly facing an unimaginable energy crisis. Brent crude oil moved above $120 per barrel (bbl) and then came back around $110 a barrel.

At these prices, inflation is baked into our future and we begin to confront better energy choices, and at the same time begin to question how our energy transition is going.

The anti-nuclear lobby is pushing renewable energy as the solution, but that [is unrealistic], It’s doing so under the seemingly well-meaning cloak of the Just Energy transition.

What exactly is the Just Energy Transition? At its core, it must address the issue of energy security and affordability, balanced with environmental sustainability. Sunlight and wind are not going to solve this on their own. We would need an energy mix, and that includes nuclear.

We have recently been reminded by Germany of how things can get messy when you pursue ‘environmental sustainability’ as a priority over energy security. Germany is dependent on its neighbors – and that includes Russia – for its energy security, which derives almost entirely from fossil fuels. This proved to be a fatal mistake, which continues to challenge Germany’s sovereignty to this day.

Shutting down its domestic nuclear power plants has also rendered Germany’s sustainability goals ineffective, while keeping the price of electricity in orbit as it relies more on fossil fuels to stabilize intermittent energy supplies. The result is CO₂ emissions six times higher than in Germany’s neighbor France (and more than from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Recommendations). It should alert us that this same “model solution” has been sold to South Africa over the past decade with similar results, compounded by load shedding.

South Africa does not have the luxury of an abundant energy supply from across its borders and therefore needs to be energy self-sufficient. Fortunately, South Africa has the potential to generate its own electricity from abundant fossil fuels, renewable energy and uranium. So we must learn from the mistakes of our former mentors and develop our own energy transitions that align with our energy endowments.

In anticipation of doubling the world’s electricity consumption by 2050, environmental scientist and Forbes contributor, James Konka, suggests a balanced and sustainable energy portfolio, which includes: One third from electricity, one third from hydro and renewable energy and one third from nuclear power. It will achieve an average CO₂ footprint < 200 grams per kilowatt hour (g/kWh) at an affordable tariff. Then we have an effective solution for cleaning our transport sector and urban areas. With a growing economy and a sustainable environment, we can for once address the quality of life and prosperity of the people of Africa.

South Africa has access to all the energy resources needed to undertake a program such as:

  • reducing coal through a sensible retirement program;
  • increase in natural gas (with reservations on international price volatility);
  • participation on regional hydropower, and;
  • To significantly increase renewable energy and nuclear power generation.

Weather-dependent technologies can be easily balanced, giving us the only slim chance we have of ending load-shedding and driving economic growth into positive territory over the next decade.

Battery energy storage systems are net consumers of electricity, meaning they consume more electricity from the grid than they distribute. Their value to the grid is helping to mitigate peak demands with stored energy during low demand periods. This is an expensive solution, given that it does not impose additional watts on the grid, and the CO₂ footprint is >200 grams per kilowatt hour (kWh).

Last year’s COP 26 climate conference in Glasgow highlighted the valuable contribution of gas and nuclear power to our clean energy transition. Developed countries’ taxonomy not only classify them as “green” with access to green funding, but also essential to achieving the sustainability goals of these just energy transitions.

If the RMIPPPP (Risk Mitigation Independent Power Producer Procurement Program) is affordable, nuclear power is a clear winner for South Africa. It provides the most reliable and clean electricity on the grid in its safe operating life of 60 to 80 years. It may cost three times as much to develop and build, but it delivers three times the amount of electricity at the lowest cost, one-time refinement (like Koeberg). What does South Africa need right now? Let’s do it.

Des Muller is the spokesperson for the SA Nuclear Build Platform.

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