Opinion Piece: The future of South Africa’s energy mix

Viren Sookhun, MD at Oxyon People Solutions
Viren Sookhun, MD at Oxyon People Solutions

By Viren Sookhun, MD at Oxyon People Solutions

04 December 2023

South Africa’s energy situation is currently in a state of disaster, and the only long-term and sustainable solution is for the country to move away from the use of fossil fuels. Not only is this essential in addressing the electricity shortages and ever-increasing demand, it is also imperative from a carbon emissions perspective – and every country is currently on the same journey. However, each has its own unique climate, population, and needs, and therefore the energy mix will be different. While it is difficult to know for certain what South Africa’s energy landscape will look like far into the future, we do know that it will look vastly different to today, and will, if implemented correctly, help to address social issues as well as energy problems, creating a more equitable and sustainable future on multiple fronts.

Sunshine state

Solar power will undeniably play a pivotal role in South Africa’s energy future, as it is already actively harnessed by businesses, shopping centres and residential consumers as a way of supplementing lack of availability from the grid. It will undoubtedly become part of new construction in both the commercial and residential space, and the more self-sufficient people and businesses can become, the less pressure will be on utility providers.

Solar is also the focus of various Independent Power Producer (IPP) projects on the horizon, feeding back into the grid to supply electricity. However, the limitation of solar is obvious – it only works optimally during daylight hours and when there is no cloud cover, so it cannot address 100% of the country’s energy needs. Battery storage is thus a necessary component of effective solar power generation.

Where the wind blows

While solar is important in South Africa, it is not viable as a solution on its own to address the growing power needs of the country, especially as we progress further in the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). Hydro-electric power may contribute a small amount, but we do not have many large waterfalls so this will not be a significant solution. Nuclear power will continue to play a role, especially as a backup solution, and coal will also still have a reduced role, but with greener practices behind it.

The biggest contributor by far, however, will be green hydrogen and Power-to-X (including green ammonia), supported by wind energy which in turn powers the electrolysers to manufacture green hydrogen. While deep ocean turbines are not viable, both offshore and onshore wind will produce enough electricity to address the needs of South Africa in the near- and long-term. There are several areas in the country where there is sufficient wind, from off the coast of the Western and Eastern Cape to inland in the Northern Cape. While challenges such as grid capacity constraints require attention, and the path ahead involves numerous stages, we must initiate our efforts now to progress toward a more sustainable future.

More than just electricity

While addressing electricity generation is essential, creating the Just Transition the country needs is about a much bigger picture. Fossil fuels will need to be gradually replaced, which includes petrochemicals, impacting vehicles and airplanes, as well as the production of plastic, widely used in the manufacturing of various goods.

We need to look to produce greener materials and processes, from plant-based plastic alternatives to biomass, green hydrogen and more. We must explore options like carbon capture, which will allow us to remove the CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels from the air and reduce emissions as we transition. We also need to address the ongoing widespread use of paper, which necessitates the harvesting of trees, as well as energy and other resources for a lot of individuals who currently lack access.

While everyone is hyper-focused on the question of electricity due to the current load shedding problem, the Just Transition, and the journey toward net zero are about so much more. Sustainability means more than just eco-friendly power, but addressing the use of fossil fuels is a vital first step in the journey.


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