Let’s make electricity

Shall we? Well, we need to.

We’re short of electricity. We have been for a long while. Things have been better recently, but that’s mainly due to the economic downturn rather than any huge increase in generating power.

So, we need more electricity so that when things pick up again (lol!), we are ready to go and there are no further instances of “rolling blackouts” or “loadshedding”.

Much has been made of the SA Government’s insistence of going down the nuclear route. Currently, we have just one nuclear power station, just up the road at Koeberg. The alleged R1 trillion deal with Russia would add several more, and also the opportunity (so the cynics say, at least) for massive kickbacks, corruption and general naughtiness.

The cynics may well be right. But their fears are not what this post is about.

Brian Molefe, group chief executive of Eskom, allegedly recently stated that nuclear was “the cheapest option” and a local fact checking website went after him on that claim. They found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that his alleged claim was incorrect. But his inaccuracy is not what this post is about.

Here’s a screenshot of a graph that Africa Check’s data generated (geddit?):

Fullscreen capture 2016-08-25 120214 PM.bmp

And you can see that Brian was incorrect. Naughty Brian. Well done, Africa Check.

Thankfully, one thing everyone can agree is correct is that South Africa needs to generate more electricity. Oh, and that we really can’t afford to pay any more for it. So, what exactly are our options?

There’s hydroelectric. Clean, renewable, easy, cheap. It would be lovely to run our country with electricity from mountain streams and melting snow. But we don’t have mountains streams and melting snow. In fact, we have a few issues with the amount of water we have available for anything full stop. Put simply, there just isn’t enough water to make HEP a viable option.

There’s coal. Coal is cheap, we have lots of coal and we have lots of big coal-fired power stations. But coal is filthy. It makes shedloads of greenhouse gases and a billion other pollutants that no-one wants. Greenpeace says no to coal, and it’s just about the only thing I agree with them on. Going forward, coal should not be on the table (or in the furnace) for generating electricity.

Next up is gas. It’s there with wind and nuclear as a level levelised cost. Now, I happen to know that just under the Karoo is (conservatively estimating) about 450 000 000 000 000 cubic feet of shale gas. And I’d tap that gas. We could drop coal, drop our carbon emissions and make lovely, relatively clean, relatively cheap electricity. Except the green people aren’t happy with the plan to extract the shale gas. We’ve covered this… er… “extensively” on 6000 miles… I don’t think I need to go into again. Shale gas would be brilliant for SA. But the bunnyhuggers are determined that it won’t happen.

There’s nuclear – right there. Reasonably cheap, very clean, super reliable. Look at Koeberg – running without any big problems since 1984. There may be issues about corruption, but whatever methods we choose, this is electricity generating infrastructure on a massive scale. Sadly, there will always be those opportunities.

Still, wind looks like an option. Until you do the sums, that is. Remember that the nuclear option is for 9.6GW of electricity generation. Now look at this:

At 3MW per massive 145 metre (90m hub + 55m blade) turbine, you’d need 3,200 turbines! And that’s assuming 100% efficiency. Wind farms don’t do 100% efficiency. Wind farms only do about 30% efficiency (and I’m being nice here). So basically 10,000 turbines to guarantee that 9.6GW figure. If you’ve seen the blot on the landscape that is the Dassiesklip Wind Farm near Caledon, you’ll see how much of an eyesore just 9 (nine) turbines can be. And how much space they take up.
Dream on.

Look at the left hand side of that bar chart. Realistically, you’d probably have to rule out solar on the grounds of price. Oh, and also, the ridiculous scale required:

To achieve the 9.6GW capacity planned for this nuclear thing, we’d need something about 33 times the size of the current largest solar park in the world. That would cover 32,043 hectares and would cost about $33 billion.

So, no. Nuclear might not be the cheapest option for generating electricity in South Africa. And Brian Molefe shouldn’t be saying that it is. But until someone comes up with any other viable option – and I really don’t see anything reasonable on the table or anywhere close – it might well be the best option for electricity generation in South Africa.

Whether you like it or not.

Keeping The Lights On

One of the benefits of being over in the UK recently was that I was able to pick up the latest copy of Private Eye magazine. I used to be a subscriber, but found that the postal delay rendered much of the content dated and irrelevant. If ever there was a case for a publication having a digital edition, Private Eye are it. Topical satire simply doesn’t age well.

But I digress. Often.

There was a column in it written by ‘Old Sparky’, entitled “Keeping The Lights On”. It was very interesting to read it as a SA resident. It’s probably a bit long to add into a blog post, to be honest, but I’ve never been one to abide by the petty unwritten rules around blogging, so here is it, in its entirety – I’ll see you for more comment on the other side:

WHEN the authorities make contingency plans against predictable disasters, we all applaud their foresight. Which catastrophes they are thinking about, however, can be revealing and give cause for concern; and right now the government is working on the possibility of a five-day nationwide power blackout – putting all its breezy denials of the lights going out into perspective.

As frequently noted here, energy policy since the dreadful Energy Act 2008 has resulted in the safety margin between reliable electricity generating capacity and peak demand becoming progressively and dangerously tighter. A 20 percent margin would be considered comfortable; but this winter it will only be 1.2 percent – down from 4.1 percent last year – before the National Grid takes special short-term measures.

Homes and hospitals
The grid has recently been bolstering its emergency resources with banks of diesel generators and the right to switch off industrial customers. Publicly the government always insists “the lights will stay on” – in homes and hospitals, that is. But it’s a costly, third-world way to run a grid in a supposedly advanced economy: and now we know they obviously don’t think it is guaranteed to work.

Papers seen by Private Eye indicate that the Cabinet Office and Treasury combined are planning for a scenario in which there is a five-day nationwide blackout with only small stand-by generators working. The detailed consequences they envisage include:

  • No landline telephones available to businesses or homes
  • Mobile phones with voice-only service (not data)
  • No street lights, traffic lights or public transport
  • Two-thirds of petrol stations closed
  • Shops open only sporadically and unreliably
  • ATMs unavailable, with cash running out fast

This would most probably happen in winter. It goes without saying that such a situation would also bring about ghastly accidents and loss of life, with the emergency services much constrained in their ability to cope. The implications for industry, commerce and public order are grim, too. If it’s any comfort, the German authorities – based on their own crazy energy policy – are looking at very similar scenarios.

With all this at stake, as prudent as it may be to plan for potential calamities, it would surely have been better to render the blackout scenario redundant by properly ensuring security of electricity supply. The current combination of intermittent wind farms, ageing nukes, fast-closing coal-fired power stations and mothballed gas-fired plants doesn’t do that: and privately the government knows it.

Yeah. We think that SA is the only one with problems like these. But there’s a real danger that the UK could experience some form of load-shedding this winter as well. (Regular readers shouldn’t find this news surprising.)

When similar ‘disaster’ plans made by Eskom and the SA Government became public knowledge, there was considerable disquiet and some small degree of panic (probably mainly thanks to scaremongering headlines). Sales of tinned goods reached heights not seen since 1994 and we all waiting to be plunged into dark, apocalyptic anarchy.

It didn’t happen.


SA signed up (or didn’t sign up, depending on whom you choose to believe) for 4 new nuclear power stations, designed and supplied and ostensibly run by a foreign power – Russia. (Ironically, the UK has pretty much done the same thing with China and France.)

The cost of this SA/Ruskie venture? A tidy One Trillion Rands. It’s a lot of money, but the issues are not specifically around the cost, but (as you will read here) mainly around the safety of nuclear power stations and the potential for widespread corruption. Thing is though, the safety issue isn’t actually an issue – one only has to look at the still completely unexploded Koeberg Power Station to see that. And the corruption thing, while entirely valid, has got very little to do with this specific deal, and would be a problem no matter what large scale civil engineering project was being undertaken, and by whomever. That’s how these things work in SA. It’s sad, but it’s true.
So your plans for a ‘super clean’, ridiculously big, massively inefficient solar plant would attract the same problem. Your unpretty, flying thing killing, massively inefficient wind turbine plan will also be loaded with backhanders. But Greenpeace will probably choose to ignore that.

Large scale projects are expensive. Producing electricity is expensive. It’s something we have to accept though, because these are things that we need. People with trendy, fleetingly zeitgeist ideas like diverting that Trillion Rand to tertiary education are missing the rather obvious point that without some form of generating more electricity, there will be nothing for their newly graduated thousands to do in an economy that’s lying in small bits and pieces all over the bottom of Africa.
Yes, of course this situation could definitely have been better managed – it could still be better managed – but we need to do something, because otherwise we’re going to end up implementing that Eskom blackout plan.
And that is not a road we want to be going down.

PDF of the Private Eye article.

World’s Biggest Windmill

Not really, but still – nice story: they’ve put a couple of VAWTs on the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Well, they couldn’t really put them on the Eiffel Tower anywhere else, could they?

If you’ve ever seen the Eiffel Tower in real life, you’ll know that it’s not small. Here it is with its head in the clouds in the height of summer, 2012 with the boy wonder in the foreground, and a handy indicator of where the turbines have been fitted just above the 2eme étage:


Amazingly, despite their hugely elevated position, they’re not even at the height of the wind turbines in Caledon just up the road from Cape Town. Suddenly, Gustav’s big project doesn’t seem quite so huge. Or maybe wind turbines are just generally horribly invasive. Hey, you decide.

The 10,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity they’ll produce each year is about enough to self-sustain the commercial section on the tower’s first floor, but not much else.

Look, it’s something. And I do understand that this is really all just about visibility. To be honest, short of putting a set of huge blades on the top of the tower itself, it’s probably about as good as it’s going to get. Especially in a country which produces around 80% of its electricity from nuclear. But while wind is good because it’s renewable, it’s may not be quite as green as you think. Here’s an interesting “back-of-the-envelope calculation” by Popular Science magazine on which are the nastiest forms of electricity generation if you happen to be, say… a bird (as one of the endangered Blue Cranes near Caledon might self-identify, for example).


You can read more here, but the gist of it is that Coal is downright evil (we knew this), solar plants fry birds:

Rewire reports that during the test, operators fired up a third of the 110-megawatt facility’s mirrors, concentrating sunlight on a spot 1,200 feet off the ground. Over a six-hour period, biologists counted 130 “streamers,” or trails of smoke and water left behind as birds ignited and plummeted to their deaths. Rewire’s anonymous source said that at least one of the birds “turned white hot and vaporized completely.”

and we already knew that wind turbines kill birds and bats.

Sadly, despite our current (no pun intended) electricity woes, it seems like nuclear isn’t the er… cleanest option for SA either (although not necessarily for environmental reasons).

So we have the choice of evil coal (which we’re going to use), the horribly inefficient and not-ever-so-nice-after-all solar and wind, or the allegedly dangerously corrupt nuclear.

Or we could do fracking… Now there’s a good idea.

More Parisian flickritude

Monbiot goes Nuclear

George Monbiot has a moment of clarity:

It’s a devastating admission to have to make, especially during the climate talks in Durban. But there would be no point in writing this column if I were not prepared to confront harsh truths. This year, the environmental movement to which I belong has done more harm to the planet’s living systems than climate change deniers have ever achieved.

As a result of shutting down its nuclear programme in response to green demands, Germany will produce an extra 300m tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2020. That’s almost as much as all the European savings resulting from the energy efficiency directive. Other countries are now heading the same way. These decisions are the result of an almost medievel misrepresentation of science and technology. For while the greens are right about most things, our views on nuclear power have been shaped by weapons-grade woo.

We may have mentioned the Germany faux pas here and here.

What follows Monbiot’s terrible admission is generally a plea to his fellow greenies to look again at nuclear technology, specifically a GEH proposal to build an Integral Fast Reactor at Sellafield in the UK, capable of using the waste radioactive material from other nuclear plants. The alternative plans for the waste – as described by George, at least – do seem far less palatable.

All in all it’s an interesting read and, if one is being rational, then supporting GEH’s plan seems like a no-brainer:

So we environmentalists have a choice. We can’t wish the waste away. Either it is stored and then buried. Or it is turned into mox fuels. Or it is used to power IFRs. The decision is being made at the moment, and we should determine where we stand.
I suggest we take the radical step of using science, not superstition, as our guide.

That last line is the kicker though, and probably explains why George’s is likely be the only green voice calling for a new reactor in Cumbria. Sad, but true.

A fully referenced version of this column is available here.

How things work

A great letter in today’s Cape Times from John Walmsley of the Nuclear Institute rebuffing the concerns of opponents to nuclear power in the wake of the troubles at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant in Japan.

I’m trying to get hold of the full text, but there was one thing which I found particularly pertinent, especially while the fracking debate continues on this post.

This quote from the letter:

The anti-nuclear lobby will make alarming public pronouncements that will be quietly trashed by professional health organisations in the technical literature.

Brilliant. Because isn’t this the problem? It was the problem with MMR, where the experts repeatedly stated that there was no link to autism, but the anti-vax groups preyed on the public’s fear and exacerbated the effect of Andrew Wakefield’s lies.

And it still exists with the anti-fracking parties spreading fear through emotionally-laden misinformation to advance their cause.
It closes minds and it means that the real information – the important, factual information – is hidden from the general public. Which, of course, is the aim of these people.

In some ways, analogies can be drawn to the issue that troubles me around the media and their inaccuracies: namely that they can shout about a subject  on the front page – however inaccurate their claims may be – often igniting a bitter, yet worthless debate based on nonsense, but then get away with publishing a tiny correction at the bottom of page 19 two weeks later.