Energize, Chris Yelland, May, 2017
Eskom appears to be more concerned with building new nuclear power stations than in signing power purchase agreements with independent power producers which use renewable energy sources. Energize caught up with energy analyst and managing director of EE Publishers, Chris Yelland, and asked his opinion of what generation technologies South Africa should opt for.
Chris, you are seen by many as an informed energy analyst and your views and opinion are highly regarded by people in the energy sector and the general public. However, there now seems to be a perception that you are opposed to nuclear energy. So where do you stand?
No, I am not in any camp – not in the renewables camp, and not in the nuclear camp. Being labelled in this way is a kind of personalisation of the issues that is unhelpful. It is a sign that the proponents or opponents are unable to address or answer the real issues rationally, and therefore resort to personalisation of the issues, labelling people and putting them into little boxes.
I am certainly not opposed to a nuclear new-build in South Africa on ideological or technology grounds. But there are real issues that both nuclear and renewable energy proponents must deal with.
What are these real issues that must be dealt with by the nuclear industry? Can you elaborate on them?
Firstly, there are public perceptions of political motives, political interference and corruption associated with mega-project procurements. There are widespread public impressions that things are happening in secret behind closed doors, that due process is not being followed and that there are some rather sinister motives. Whatever we think of the perceptions, whether they are true or not, they actually need to be dealt with.
The high upfront capital cost and associated financing and affordability of such mega-projects is is an issue. One really has to deal with the high up-front capital cost issue, because it is one of the big drawbacks of nuclear.
We must also fully understand the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) from nuclear power over the lifetime of the plant, taking into account the overnight capital cost, interest during construction, debt, fuel, operating, maintenance, decommissioning and waste disposal costs. The LCOE indicates the overall cost, in Rands per kilowatt hour of the electricity delivered from a nuclear power plant, in order to be able to compare it properly on a similar basis with other technologies.
Nuclear power stations take a long time to build, up to ten to twelve years per reactor, and mega-projects are prone to high cost and time overruns.
South Africa needs flexibility in an uncertain and unpredictable world, where electricity demand is difficult to predict in the years ahead, and disruptive technologies are on the horizon. Technologies such as wind, solar PV and energy storage may change the rules of the game.
Is it prudent to commit to a single technology and a single vendor for a fleet of mega-power projects with long lead times for 80 to 100 years in an uncertain world? Or would it be better to proceed with multiple, smaller projects with short and reliable lead-times, and lower price tags, that can be ordered and built flexibly to meet changing demand, economic circumstances and technologies?
These issues are not actually nuclear vs. renewables, but a issues of inflexible mega-projects vs. smaller flexible projects. So it’s not a question of being anti-nuclear or pro-renewables. It’s a question of giving oneself enough flexibility to deal with the real world in the decades and century ahead.