Here in the “upside down” Southern Hemisphere, we have now passed mid-winter and are heading toward summer. However, the nights will remain rather cold for another month, before we start to really feel the returning warmth of summer.
This time of year puts real pressure on South Africa’s electricity supply system. Many thousands of people dive into hot baths and turn on their household heaters all at about the same time each evening. As the sun sets and families prepare dinners and relax or do homework, lights, radios, televisions and computers are turned on, and stoves and other kitchen equipment are powered up, thanks to electricity.
Even opening refrigerator doors causes motors to switch on, to remove the bit of heat that migrated into the fridge and keep temperatures constant. Opening oven doors drops cooking temperatures and flicks heating elements back on.
The great electrical lines that march across the country hum as they transmit power across the vast distances, and we South Africans do this electrical transmission dance in a rather spectacular fashion.
South Africa is blessed with abundant coal, so we burn the carbon rock to produce most of our electricity. One snag is that the coal is essentially all clustered in the north-eastern part of the country. That means we must move the electricity over long distances.
It’s expensive to build all those power lines and, even though they are world-leading technology, such long-distance transmission also results in a significant loss of power. As electricity is transported hundreds of miles, some simply disappears into the atmosphere, in accordance with laws of physics.
The South African distribution grid works rather well. But it is a major investment in complex technology that cannot easily be replicated in all terrains all over the country – or in many other African nations.
There are more than fifty such nations, covering an area larger than China, the United States and Europe combined. That is a lot of ground to cover.
Making the challenge even greater, many African countries and communities are only 5% electrified. In other words, 95% of their families, schools and businesses have no electricity, or have it only a few hours a day or week, and then often erratically and unpredictably.
The only moral course of action for these countries, as far as electricity is concerned, is to double electricity generation and consumption as soon as possible – and then do it again, and again. Thus, in the South African context, and even more so in the greater African context, it is necessary to do everything possible to produce more electricity, to ensure hope, opportunity, health and prosperity for hundreds of millions of people.
This cannot be achieved using coal as the only, or even primary, fuel for the foreseeable future. Except as a temporary measure for small remote communities, wind and solar cannot meet these needs either, for their electricity is too expensive and unreliable.
By far the majority of African countries are not blessed with huge deposits of coal. Some have some oil, but it is much better to use oil to fuel cars, trains and aircraft. Some have natural gas, but developing this resource and building the necessary pipelines is in its infancy.
Many African countries rely largely on hydroelectric power. However, that means they have to build dams and power stations where the power is: in free-running rivers. If that is not where they actually need the power, they must construct transmission lines and grids. Moreover, many of these countries are arid and subject to recurrent droughts, which can dramatically reduce electricity generation. And many environmentalists oppose hydroelectric power (as well as hydrocarbon fuels).
Some of these African countries are also very big, and even the smaller ones are still big by European standards. This means major costs and complexities are associated with developing the lines and grids. This is expensive, takes time, and demands constant expert maintenance.
In South Africa we carry out live-line maintenance. We drop technicians onto live power lines from a helicopter. They sit there, calmly repairing the line, as it transmits 700,000 Volts! They tell me their hair stands on end, because of the huge electric field. But as long as they make no earth contact, like coming close to a pylon, the technicians will not explode in a ball of flame.
South Africa’s vast grid is a huge technological achievement, which the country is justly proud of. But one has to ask whether this the correct way forward for other African countries – or even for any country in the future.
The answer is clear and definite: maybe! If a country has major sources of fuel, such as South Africa’s coal, then maybe it would be profitable to move electrical power long distances. If, on the other hand, a country does not have a major fuel source, then building a huge grid makes little sense.
For most of Africa, and for that matter the rest of the world, the better answer is, produce electricity where you want and need it, to minimize the need for long power lines. Have multiple sets of smaller distribution grids, rather than one large national grid, to ensure affordable, reliable electricity for the greatest possible number of people.
Okay, it’s a great philosophy. How do we do make it happen? We must produce small power plants that can be placed where we want them. We must build the power generation where we need the power.
In some cases, that can mean building gas-fired turbines – if natural gas has been discovered and can be delivered easily and economically by pipeline to electrical generators near cities.
In many other instances, it is much better to build small nuclear power plants in Richards Bay, Port Elizabeth, Carltonville and other South African cities. In other countries, do the same. It is easy to bring nuclear fuel to these small power stations because so little fuel is used.
Building large scale nuclear power plants of 2000 MW on the Cape Town coast is fine. We need them to power the Cape. However, we also need independent nuclear plants to power the inland goldfields, iron and copper mines, and communities.
Great strides have been made in producing smaller power plants that are cost effective, easy to operate and inherently safe. This is the way of the future, and we are going to see a number of such designs emerge. Much more technological innovation is poised to unleash itself in the world of nuclear power, than in the fields of solar and wind power. A range of nuclear power plant designs and sizes is the future.
This philosophy is spreading across Africa. Small power plants, placed strategically near points of consumption, will be the strategy to rapidly advance our vast continent.
Such a strategy also lends itself to private ownership of electricity production, thereby leading to healthy market competition, affordable and reliable power 24/7/365 – and better business and educational opportunities, health and prosperity than most Africans ever dreamed of.