I could not agree more with Energy Minister David Mahlobo’s recent Parliamentary reply, in which he stated that there was no longer a need to build large power generation units, owing to the availability of low-cost smaller generation alternatives.
In response to Economic Freedom Fighters MP Mzingisi Dlamini’s question why he was “seemingly in a rush to expedite a nuclear energy deal that South Africa cannot afford”, the Minister dismissed any notion of unseemly haste and, quite startlingly, acknowledged the risk of building “stranded assets” in light of a decoupling of economic growth from electricity demand.
Such decoupling was attributed partly to the fact that energy- intensive users were embracing energy-efficient technologies and partly to the changing structure of the South African economy, where the increasing role of services was reducing the economy’s previous energy-intensive profile. As a consequence, electricity demand from the national grid was becoming more difficult to forecast.
“This necessitates a more frequent revision of the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). Otherwise, we may end up building infrastructure that will not be optimally used, that is, stranded,” Mahlobo admitted, while indicating that a revised IRP would soon be placed before Cabinet for its concurrence.
He then went on to say: “The low cost of smaller generation units makes it easy, as we now do not have to build large units, that is, infrastructure build programmes must be implemented in a modular manner so that they can respond to changes in the market”.
The problem is that this remarkably sensible response bore little or no resemblance to sentiments expressed by Mahlobo in an exclusive interview with The New Age newspaper, published, ironically, on the very same day that the Minister’s official reply to Dlamini was distributed through the Parliamentary communication service.
In that interview, Mahlobo said the following: “There’s no discussion about the need [for nuclear] – the need is there, but do you know what the debate is? The debate is about people who want to influence where the nuclear deal goes.”
The Minister then appealed for a “decent debate” about nuclear energy that was free from obfuscation.
In reality, there is no need for such a debate, as the technical (nonpoliticised) IRP drafting process has already amply demonstrated that there is simply no need for a large-scale nuclear build programme, owing to the availability of several other cheaper and less risky options.
Sadly, this least-cost outcome does not suit certain powerful interests and, after a considerable panel beating of the underlying assumptions, a nuclear new build programme has indeed been ‘forced’ into the IRP scenarios that will go before Cabinet. That being the case, it will again lie with civil society and the courts to ensure ‘forced self-correction’.