SA and Africa’s educational level lends itself to renewable energy – Lipschitz

Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe delivered the opening address at the ANC Eastern Cape conference on Saturday during which he reportedly said those who resist nuclear power while serving on the board of the National Nuclear Regulator will be fired. The minister displays an almost astounding confidence in light of the recently returned load-shedding across the country. Medupi and Kusile – once hailed as mega-projects – are seemingly never without troubles. In this article, David Lipschitz, a renewable power station expert, points out the madness of South Africa going nuclear when we aren’t even able to successfully maintain our coal power stations. To top it all, the time and cost of going nuclear is extraordinary. Lipschitz offers a logical alternative: “South Africa and Africa’s educational level and system lends itself to a renewable energy-powered electrical system.” – Nadya Swart

Staffing the rooftop solar revolution in Africa

By David Lipschitz*

I wrote this on 14 September 2015. It is even more relevant now.

David Lipschitz

South Africa and Africa lend themselves to a modern renewable energy-powered grid because of the people we have available to build out and localise the grid and its capabilities.

As can be seen with the Medupi coal power station being way over budget and very late (this was already in 2015; these monsters are even more late in 2022!), South Africans have no idea how to build coal power stations. And on this basis, we want to build nuclear power stations.

To get the requisite education, a nuclear engineer needs to attend an expensive school, go to a top university, work in nuclear power stations, build nuclear power stations, and eventually they can be employed at a very high salary to build, maintain and operate a nuclear power station in South Africa … assuming they want the job.

So, it might cost R5m to train a nuclear engineer, who would need a doctoral degree to design and build a nuclear power station, and get them to the requisite experience. Then they would need to be paid R2 million per annum to have them work in Africa. Not only this, but the South African Government continues to use French engineers and experts at its Koeberg Nuclear Power station, spending millions per annum flying in experts, accommodating them, and paying for upgrades. If there was real learning at Koeberg, we would not need foreign aid to run this power station anymore.

The same thing is applicable at Medupi, South Africa’s newest coal power station. We need foreign engineers, foreign scientists, foreign capital, foreign software, and so much more foreign stuff. We should be able to realise these foreign suppliers don’t want South Africa’s new power stations to be completed, especially with the possibility of more rapid depreciation in our currency; they can get more of our raw materials at cheaper prices. Why would they want us to be able to beneficiate our raw materials when they can do it with our raw materials and coal and then sell the finished products back to us? Yet, people are xenophobic about Zimbabweans, Malawians and others who run shops and create local jobs in South Africa!

In a 52-page paper handed out by the South African Government in parliament in November 2008, Amory Lovins, chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, in his 2008 paper, ‘The Nuclear Illusion’ , said there is a shortage of nuclear engineers, places where nuclear engineers can study and of plants making nuclear parts:

“Nuclear workers are becoming scarce too. Forty percent of those at US plants are eligible for retirement within the next five years, and only 8% are younger than 32. Two-fifths of France’s reactor operation and maintenance staff will retire by 2015, and few of the new hires are trained nuclear experts. Meanwhile, nuclear education is dwindling. Since 1980, US nuclear engineering university programmes have declined from 65 to ~29 and have trouble attracting talented students; the Nuclear Energy Institute says the US now has 1,900 undergraduates and 1,100 graduate students in nuclear engineering programmes, but this remains far smaller than needs to offset retirements and staff proposed growth. In 2002, the UK had no undergraduate course in nuclear engineering. The number of German academic institutions with nuclear courses is expected to drop from 22 in 2000 to 10 in 2005 to five in 2010; 46 nuclear diplomas were granted in 1993, zero in 1998, and only two in the five years ended in 2002. As experienced nuclear experts retire, safely running old plants will be hard enough without staffing new ones.”

(2022: You can read a very lucid and clever recent Amory Lovins report here.)

How many nuclear engineers have graduated from South African universities in the past 39 years since Koeberg become operational? How many local factories make parts for nuclear power stations? How many local people are employed supporting Koeberg?

Now let’s compare this with training people to install renewable energy systems, focusing on producing electricity, solar electric, solar electricity, photovoltaic (PV) systems. A team that can install one house per day needs three people: a craftsperson who can put in the required brackets to hold the PV panels; a labourer; and a qualified electrician, who can do the DC and AC wiring and program the inverter and other equipment. This electrician needs a matric certificate, at least a three-month electrical course, perhaps a year of practical experience and can do one more month to become a qualified renewable energy installer.

So, perhaps one year and R50,000 is required for an electrician to be able to install and sign off a PV system. We could have 100 local qualified PV people for the cost of one foreign nuclear engineer.

The cost of the nuclear build is estimated at R1trn, and for this, we get 10 GW of electricity.

For R1,000,000,000,000, we could get 10,000,000 (ten million) multiplied by R100,000 home-owner power stations rated at 3 kW of PV each, with a 5 kW inverter and enough battery backup for them to run at night and longer during the day because of the PV input. The R100,000 is an average price; a township house might only require R30,000 and a mansion like Nkandla might need millions of rands in electricity provision.

[Note that in 2022, I would do the following which would get houses 95% off the grid and able to supply the grid with ‘super power electricity’ in the afternoons: 6,700,000 million houses* R150,000 at 6 kW of PV, an 8 kW inverter and 15 kWh of battery backup; 30 GW becomes 40.2 GW of PV; and 50 GW of inverter power becomes 53.6 inverter power; and 40 GWH of usable lead acid becomes 80 GWH of Lithium-ion battery.]

And for this one trillion, we would get 10,000,000* 5,000 Watts of power, i.e. 50 GW of power, which is five times as much as we could get if we build nuclear. We could work out how many teams we need to do this build in 10 years, the theoretical time it will take to build the nuclear plants. Of course, each day, teams of people would be adding perhaps 25 kW of power to the grid, whereas we would need to wait a decade for one Watt of nuclear power.

South Africa and Africa’s educational level and system lends itself to a renewable energy-powered electrical system.

We don’t have the time or resources to build coal or nuclear plants anymore. So, what are we waiting for, and why are we wasting time on out-of-date technology we cannot support and where local people will not be employed?

  • David Lipschitz BSc (Honours) MBA, renewable power station expert.

Read also: