CSIR’s Monique le Roux: SA’s loadshedding solution in abundant gas, renewables – execution required

Monique le Roux, a senior researcher at the CSIR  who specialises in energy and electricity, applies her mind to the challenges and potential solutions for SA’s energy crisis. She also touches on recent revelations of corruption in the country’s public utility, as well as the delays in the renewables program. Le Roux emphasises the importance of gas as a low-hanging fruit, but the government’s lack of leadership and policy direction is a big obstacle. Also covered in the interview is the potential of fracking in the Karoo and its impact on the country’s energy supply. She spoke to Alec Hogg of BizNews.

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Relevant timestamps for the interview

  • 02:10 – Monique le Roux on de Ruyter’s book
  • 03:13 – On if there is an effort to block renewables from the grid
  • 05:13 – On what they’re working on at the CSIR centre
  • 06:26 – On when SA can realise its potential in shale gas space
  • 08:58 – On if we have similar resources to Namibia
  • 10:34 – On the differing opinions regarding fracking in the Karoo and how long it might take to get off the ground
  • 16:02 – On the upside of investing more heavily in gas
  • 16:33 – The potential downside of gas
  • 18:26 – On the private sector coming to the party in the renewables space

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Extracts from the interview

Is there an effort to block renewables from the grid

I wouldn’t say that there’s been a concerted effort to block renewables coming onto the grid. I think overall, we’ve just seen the powers that be dragging their feet. So my experience certainly says that there hasn’t been any sort of an agenda towards renewables in blocking that. We are working closely, as I said, with Eskom and with the government, with the IPP office. And in my experience, it’s a big system and there’s a lot of red tape, a lot of legislation that needs to get in place for something to happen, and the ship just really moves very slowly, or turns very slowly. 

In my opinion, it’s a coming together of those issues that caused all these delays. There’s been a lot of talk in the media about corruption and people trying to block it because the program has been so well-regulated. From what I’ve seen, we couldn’t pick up any corruption and we couldn’t pick up any irregularities. It seems like it was run so smoothly. It’s been touted as a model for other countries to work according to, I think there probably were some arms that did try and stop it, or try to sort of fork into it so that they can get some of the pie. But I don’t think it’s just largely the government or Eskom trying to block it. I haven’t seen that yet.  

Read more: A three step plan: Solving the electricity crisis and reshaping South Africa’s energy landscape

On when SA can realise its potential in the shale gas space

The models that we’re running and, what we’ve looked at, gas is sort of the bright, shining star, and that should be the low-hanging fruit for the government at the moment because the gas is available. There are lots of questions about how it’s going to get out of the ground and how it’s going to be distributed. And where would we put those gas plants – there’s always been talk about the price of the gas. Will it be regulated by international markets; will it really be cheaper if we explored South Africa? But with gas – which is great – it can be bought online. If the gas is available. The gas power plants can be bought online really quickly and gas power plants really work so well with renewables. You’ve just got that offset, where you’ve got the renewables available during the day when the resources are available, but when the resource is not available, you’ve got that gas that can be bought online. The gas turbines really stabilise the network where, the renewables, make the network a little bit more unstable. 

So that’s something that we feel strongly should be explored at this time and should really be giving the guide and I’ve been following in the news that the 3000 megawatt plant that Eskom is trying to build in Richards Bay, they didn’t get the go ahead for. And now, this week, we heard that the minister did give them the go-ahead but that’s been challenged in court by various environmental groups and that really makes the situation difficult because, as you say we need to get out of loadshedding. Joe Public is frustrated and you can understand the frustration. It’s having a material impact on every South African, on livelihoods, on employment, on income. So we really need those plants, as you say, like gas to get us out of this quickly. And probably gas and renewables are the ones that will get us out of this the quickest.  

Read more: Power Shift: Eskom faces threat from independent producers as sales decline

On the differing opinions regarding fracking in the Karoo and how long might it take to get it off the ground

I can’t specifically say about exploration and how long that would take, we are not really involved with that. I understand both arguments around the impact that it would have on farmers and on the ecology in the creek, but I think my opinion and looking at it sort of sitting in the middle of it and what would be best for the country is that we really need to answer those questions. We really need to get an in-depth study that can independently say what the impact is going to be on the Karoo, and what’s going to be the impact on the community in that area. 

But then also largely what’s going to be the impact on South Africa of continued load shedding, because that’s the balancing act. You can’t look at it in isolation – yes – it’s going to impact the community. But the bigger question around that is how it’s going to impact South Africa if we can’t bring the new generation online. And at the moment we don’t have other options. If you look at coal-fired power stations, big nuclear stations, and to a large degree, the renewables as well, with grid added to it, we’re looking at a ten-year lease time and people understandably can’t wait 10 years to get out of load shedding. The impact of that is going to be detrimental, especially with all the coal-fired power stations, that are nearing the end of life and starting to go into decommissioning. We’re seeing this massive cliff of baseload generation dropping off, so we desperately need that. I think that is the balancing act of the impact of gas on a small scale. But what’s the bigger impact on the nation and on a country that can’t supply the energy needs? 

Read more: Red tape tangles South Africa’s economic growth, falling behind in the race for prosperity

The private sector coming to the party in the renewables space

Absolutely, we’ve seen such amazing participation from the private sector, I think largely with gas and coal. But you can understand from the private sector’s side because there haven’t been well-developed programs for renewables where they could get involved. People are so hesitant to get involved with that because it’s just such a dirty game. Where renewables haven’t really had that, but I think if there is, if it gets opened up by governments, gas power or coal power, I think that the private sector would come and they would take up the opportunity.

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