The future of coal in South Africa

17th August 2022

The future of coal in South Africa

“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.” (M. Wheatley)  

If we reflect, what have the past three volatile years taught us about South Africa’s energy security? During the Covid-19 lockdown, coal supply and coal mining was part of the list of essential services; international conflicts have exposed the global reliance on South African coal; and in the absence of Eskom’s coal fired power supply, South Africa has had to deal with unprecedented levels of stage 6 load shedding during its peak winter months. 

Coal has proven its capacity to generate power, from the earliest days of the industrial revolution. It secures raw energy at an affordable price.

Renewable energy, in particular solar and wind infrastructure, is known to require billions of dollars in investment with an insignificant contribution to primary energy needs. This cannot be a "just transition" decision for South Africa on what energy source to use for its baseload.  

Recently, it has been recorded that the South African coal sector exceeded 21% (over R130-billion) of total mining revenues. The sector generated about 53% of the total local sales revenue of R159-billion; exceeding R45-billion in total foreign exchange earnings. Then, by comparison to the $8.5-billion pledge to phase out coal as its main energy source, it will be imprudent to take a single-minded view to this proposal, considering South Africa is a developing nation with high unemployment. 

The future of coal in South Africa is to produce less pollution and increase efficiency in our industries through clean coal technologies (CCT). CCT is defined as adapting efficient processes across the coal value chain, from cleaner mining techniques to the technical characterisation of coal for use in down-stream industries (metallurgical, cement, coal to liquid/chemical feedstock etc.) This also includes ultra-supercritical low-emission high efficiency (HELE) technology and super-critical fluidised beds (CFBs), co-firing with alternative fuels as well as carbon dioxide (CO2) capture and storage. As a hydrocarbon, coal combusts to produce hydrogen which can also be utilised in the hydrogen economy. CCTs are installed around the world, supporting the low carbon drive to reduce harmful emissions.  

In South Africa, there is a need for a hybrid energy solution which cannot exclude coal’s capacity; or include an energy mix based only on unavailable resources (imported gas, limited renewable capacity etc.) Therefore, we define an integrated energy mix as one which embraces all forms of energy sources (coal, nuclear, hydrogen, renewables and gas) relative to its capacity and must account for economies of scale. Moreover, in the interest of sustainability in all forms, an integrated energy mix is one where the greatest investment should be applied to the source which contributes the largest capacity to a secure and reliable base load power supply.

South Africa needs an inclusive energy strategy in order to meet its CO2 emission limits. Let us change the narrative by driving CCT forward towards reaching the goal of a sustainable energy future.