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Renewables may have been the only thing standing between South Africa and Stage 5 and 6 load shedding. According to research by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), variable renewable energy (VRE) contributed valuable energy and assisted in avoiding further load shedding. During load shedding periods, VRE contributed 357 GWh to the country’s total power supply, the CSIR found.

The CSIR noted that renewable energy contributed 2,975GWh (5.3%) to the South African power system in the first quarter of 2019. “Without the variable renewable energy fleet, load-shedding stage 5 and 6 could have been invoked,” the researchers said.

Renewables the only viable energy future for SA

South Africa’s utility-scale VRE fleet currently includes 1.5 GW of PV solar power, 0.5 GW of concentrated solar power (CSP) and 2.0 GW of wind power.

The CSIR’s findings emphasise the results of research recently published by the Southern Africa — Towards Inclusive Economic Development (SA-TIED) programme undertaken by the University of Cape Town’s Energy Research Centre (ERC). This research found that renewable energy plus flexible generation or storage provides the least-cost pathway for the electricity sector. It suggests that no new coal or nuclear power plants should feature in South Africa’s electricity future, as their inclusion would require subsidies from consumers.

Yet another report, this one by the London-based Climate Policy Initiative (CPI), states that South Africa could lose as much as $124-billion between now and 2035 if it delays the energy transition. “A global low-carbon transition could reduce the demand and price for assets including carbon-intensive fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Infrastructure that supports higher carbon activities — including rail, power plants or ports built around fossil fuel industries — may have to be replaced or retired early,” the CPI adds.

“Companies, investors and workers could be hurt by lower prices and reduced demand for certain products. Governments may face reduced revenues, for example from lower tax receipts, while their expenditure increases for financial assistance to industries and workers in transition.”

The UCT ERC study found there is no single or quick-fix solution to South Africa’s electricity woes, but rather that a vibrant energy mix should be adopted to not only save money for consumers, industry and the economy broadly, but also to meet the country’s carbon emissions target. Such a mix would include methods to store excess power on grid through utility-scale storage and off-grid, for example by generating hydrogen, ammonia and methane, and charging electric vehicles.

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