Renewable energy will account for just 20% of South Africa's power mix by the end of this decade, according to Rystad Energy analysis, highlighting the uphill battle the nation faces in its pursuit of decarbonization. South Africa had targeted lifting the share of renewable energy in its power generation mix from 11% currently to 41% by 2030 by increasing onshore wind and solar capacity, both of which have shown significant growth in recent years. However, rising demand and new additions to its aging coal power infrastructure mean that hitting the renewables target looks increasingly unlikely.
By 2030, power generation in South Africa is expected to increase by more than 40%, soaring from approximately 210 terawatt-hours (TWh) currently to 300 TWh by the decade’s end. Although significant investments have been made in advancing renewable energy capacity and paving the way for a cleaner power mix, the current pipeline of onshore wind projects especially is unlikely to support its ambitious targets.
At present, coal dominates South Africa’s power mix, accounting for more than 80% of electricity generation. As well as being polluting, South Africa’s reliance on aging coal power plants has led to frequent breakdowns and maintenance problems, triggering widespread blackouts across the country.
Natural gas and battery storage are obvious choices but come with their own challenges. Gas turbines, with their fast ramp-up rates and relatively low costs, provide flexibility in supplying power when renewable sources are not available. Large-scale battery storage can also play a pivotal role in storing excess energy for use when demand spikes. These technologies will be essential for ensuring a reliable and stable power supply as South Africa seeks to increase the share of renewables in its generation mix.
"Renewables and clean technologies hold the potential for reshaping South Africa’s energy landscape, contributing to a more sustainable future. By diversifying power generation and addressing immediate challenges, the country can pave the way for a resilient energy sector that aligns with its environmental goals and ensures a brighter future. But South Africa faces an uphill battle and significant hurdles in achieving its goal," says Nivedh Das Thaikoottathil, renewables and power analyst at Rystad Energy.
Coal will continue to play a crucial role
South Africa’s heavy reliance on coal is further compounded by the fact that state power utility Eskom's coal power plants have exceeded their projected 40-year lifespan. This poses a significant issue in terms of both energy security and decarbonization. As outlined in its current five-year Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement, South Africa aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to between 350 million tonnes and 420 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e) by 2030, a reduction of 10-25% from current levels. Continuing with its aging coal fleet would impede progress toward these targets and South Africa’s commitment to decarbonization.
While its Renewable Independent Power Producer Program (REIPPP) has been instrumental in driving renewable energy development, South Africa is currently reviewing applications for a substantial capacity of solar PV and onshore wind projects, many of which include battery storage. Despite the increased focus, South Africa is projected to generate only about 20% of its power from renewables by 2030, falling short of its target. In contrast, South Africa’s coal fleet is expected to expand with the emergence of new units at Kusile.
Transmission improvements required
To facilitate the deployment of renewables, South Africa is working on improving its transmission infrastructure. Inadequate transmission capacity has been a major hindrance in effectively integrating renewable technologies into the grid. The government has approved a bill that promotes private generation projects and power trading, aiming to reduce dependence on Eskom and encourage participation from the private sector. This approach will enhance competition and is expected to lower power prices for end-users over time.
When it comes to addressing the energy crisis, South Africa has taken several measures to expedite the authorization and connection of power projects. Environmental authorization timelines have been halved, and grid connection clearances are now provided within six months. Additionally, Eskom plans to build solar and battery storage plants at various locations, including Komati, Lethabo, Majuba, and Sere.
While renewables hold promise, South Africa must consider the role of gas in its energy mix. The National Department of Transport has granted access to gas-fired power ships as emergency supply, and there are plans to develop and utilize gas-to-power plants. Developing gas resources, such as the Luiperd and Brulpadda fields, could significantly contribute to meeting the country's power demand.
Battery storage is also crucial for South Africa to meet its energy demands and decarbonization goals. If gas-to-power is not pursued, the existing coal-based capacity, including new Kusile units, would need to stay online constantly, straining the electricity system. In this case, battery storage would provide a viable alternative, but would also require more overall capacity in comparison to gas-to-power and potentially higher costs. Nonetheless, integrating more intermittent capacity, whether through batteries or gas solutions, would help reduce reliance on coal-based power especially during periods of limited solar and wind availability.
With coal power's limitations becoming increasingly evident, the integration of renewable energy sources, complemented by flexible gas power and battery storage, is emerging as a viable path forward. As South Africa aims to diversify its generation mix and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, proactive measures to improve transmission infrastructure and facilitate project authorizations will be essential.