As South Africa struggles to keep the lights on, the debate over the role of gas in the country’s energy mix has been heating up. Gas is seen as a cleaner, more flexible, and reliable alternative to coal, that could help to ease loadshedding, while boosting renewables’ introduction.
Haters argue that investing in gas infrastructure would be a step backwards in the country’s journey towards a low-carbon future, while the environmental impact of developing gas resources in South Africa also raises questions. Is the debate around gas just a bunch of hot air or could it give South Africa the power lift that the country needs?
Here’s what we know…
What is natural gas and how does it generate electricity?
Natural gas is a fossil fuel that we’ll just call gas from now on. It’s mostly methane (CH4), formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals that were buried under sediment for millions of years and subjected to high pressure and temperature, leading to the formation of hydrocarbon deposits.
To produce electricity, you burn gas in a combustion chamber to release heat, which is then used to boil water to generate steam that turns a turbine to drive a generator and make electricity. Simple. It’s similar to how coal-fired power stations work.
So why doesn’t gas have coal’s bad reputation?
Gas is a cleaner fossil fuel than coal, because it releases fewer carbon emissions when burned, that’s why it is considered as a transition fuel – a temporary solution to mitigate carbon emissions while more sustainable technologies mature.
Gas generators are also much faster to start up than coal, which means that gas can step in when renewables are not available. Energy experts regularly point out that gas-fired power plants could help to integrate renewable energy into our grid by smoothing out renewable energy’s fluctuations, as well as providing a quick and flexible source of power to help stabilise the grid.
Why is the world not swapping coal for gas?
Gas remains a fossil fuel that will have to be phased out to reach net zero emissions goals by 2050. There’s also a finite amount on the planet and extraction and transportation can have negative environmental impacts. Oh, and methane is a potent greenhouse gas, so any leakage is actually worse than carbon emissions.
Then there’s the climate treaties that penalise nations for using fossil fuel that make it an unsustainable option in the long run. The Paris Agreement, for instance, dictates that gas will have to be phased out entirely by 2050 and foresees that gas is only viable as far as 2040.
Could gas help South Africa keep the lights on?
The gas lobby insists that gas must be part of a “just energy transition” in Africa and that we should develop our gas resources to power up our economy – an alternative to coal that could also make us rich.
The government’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) – the roadmap for South Africa’s electricity plans – projects that gas will play a limited, but important role in South Africa’s energy mix, making up about 5 percent of our total installed generation capacity, with coal continuing to be the dominant energy source up to 2030.
Many energy analysts argue that gas should in fact have a bigger slice of the energy cake, though a debate is also raging about where we should source our gas from.
Does South Africa have any gas power plants?
Eskom and some municipalities have several open cycle gas turbine (OCGT) plants that could use gas instead of diesel. Last year these plants were running flat out, powered by diesel that is burning a hole through the cash strapped Eskom’s pocket.
De Ruyter told parliament this month Eskom paid about R1.5billion each for three tranches of 50 million litres of diesel since November 2022.
The troubled utility was forced to cut back this year because there was simply not enough money for diesel anymore, leading to deepening stages of loadshedding.
Why do these plants still run on diesel and not gas?
Gas has been in short supply in South Africa, and diesel is typically more readily available and can be stored on-site, making it an attractive option for emergency power generation when grid electricity is unavailable.
Before his resignation Eskom boss Andre de Ruyter said Eskom was investigating gas sources and the economics around the switch. The power utility was also set to issue a request for proposals for the supply of gas to its Ankerlig and Gourikwa turbines but has stalled due to the loadshedding crisis.
These plants will never play a starring role in powering South Africa, they work best when supporting other sources of power such as coal plants or renewables.
Can’t we convert our old coal plants to gas plants?
It all boils down to money and where we should spend it, to determine South Africa’s energy future.
South African energy minister Gwede Mantashe wants to repurpose at least three coal-fired power plants – at Hendrina, Grootvlei and Camden – into gas power plants. De Ruyter was also interested in this but warned that it wasn’t as simple as everyone thought and could even be more expensive than simply building a new gas powerplant.
Eskom is out of cash, and transforming coal plants into gas power must take a backseat. De Ruyter also warned that there was a myriad of technical and regulatory obstacles that would have to be overcome.
The question remains whether investing in gas technology is the best option for South Africa’s already empty wallet, especially if climate change treaties will turn that infrastructure into white elephants in less than two decades.
What if we could find our own natural gas in South Africa?
South Africa gets most of its gas from the diminishing Pande-Temane reserves in Mozambique, so the country is on the hunt for new natural gas resources.
And this is where things get complicated. South Africa has limited domestic gas reserves of gas and most of it is imported. While there are several domestic sources of gas that South Africa could exploit, it will require billions of rands to develop and could end up as stranded assets.
Still the lure of making a quick buck persists, and government is constantly wooed to sign lucrative deals with energy companies to exploit our untapped resources, which we could use domestically as well as export.
Where are our gas fields, then?
South Africa has several offshore natural gas fields, including the Pletmos and Sable fields in the southern part of the country.
Mantashe said discoveries of gas in the Outeniqua basin, just offshore from Mossel Bay, is evidence that South Africa does have gas, akin to those significant resources discovered in neighbouring Mozambique and, very recently, in Namibia.
But exploring these gas fields is environmentally controversial. Shell’s seismic exploration of energy reserves off the Wild Coast was dramatically halted by environmentalists when they obtained a court order.
Energy companies suspect that the Karoo has large reserves of shale gas that is trapped in underground rock formations. But accessing the reserves through fracking could wreck the environment overall, leaving a desolate landscape in the wake of short-sighted gains.
Other African countries are signing lucrative contracts with Europe. Why are we losing out?
Despite its promise to move away from fossil fuels, gas still plays a big part in meeting Europe’s energy needs. Gas, for example is an important component of Germany’s energy mix and the Ukraine war has impacted on its gas supply.
And so, Europe has reached out to Africa instead, where gas is booming. Around 40 percent of global gas discoveries between 2011 and 2018 were made in Africa, according to a data analysis from multinational insurance advisor Willis Towers Watson.
African governments are eyeing gas as an opportunity to meet domestic need, support industrialisation, generate foreign revenues, and support local development.
The Willis Towers Watson analysis however warns the long-term picture on the sustainability of gas paints a different scenario. If the world complies with the all-important Paris Agreement, gas will have to die out and disappear by 2050.
African countries like Algeria that already have gas infrastructure in place, is set to benefit from the current gas boom. But most of the African discoveries are still to be developed. This investment that will never translate into the profits that are being dangled in front of desperate African governments that may lose out on renewable opportunities when chasing gas money.
But surely Europe has considered the impact of climate change treaties in dealing with Africa’s gas boom?
Many analysts have warned African governments against the hypocrisy of Europe. European centred environmental groups are telling Africa – which already has a low carbon economy profile – to stop gas for the sake of the planet, giving African countries mixed messages about its gas development.
The truth is that Europe needs Africa’s gas for the time being, and many energy companies are going to string up a whole lot of gas deals where the liability lies with Africans.
Where will South Africa find gas if we leave our gas resources untapped?
Importing our gas could still be the best offer on the table. A report by the National Business Initiative (NBI) on the importing of liquefied natural gas (LNG) said if South Africa opted to import its gas, it would minimise the risk of stranded assets.
The report argues that importing LNG carries low infrastructure and technology lock-in risks once demand falls in 2040, and the total gas phase-out by 2050.
Mozambique’s northern gas resources, currently being developed, would be our best bet for our gas supply.
Gas has a role to play in South Africa’s immediate future, but the country must be careful not to be seduced by its promised short-term gains. Investing heavily in gas infrastructure now could delay the transition to renewables and lead to stranded assets in the future.
There is a risk that if South Africa invests too heavily in gas infrastructure, we could end up with expensive white elephants whereas investment in renewable energy would have been the prudent roadmap to follow.
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