South Africa: is the Future More Coal or Renewables?

The African continent has a lot to lose with regards to future climate change. The twisted irony is that many of these countries are not major contributors to global emissions. However, this cannot be said of South Africa which, at roughly 500 MtCO2e/year, contributes 40% of the continent’s greenhouse gas. Similarly, 30% of Africa’s energy consumption is within South Africa.

The energy sector is responsible for over four-fifths of South Africa’s emissions (85% in 2009). With 95% of Africa’s coal reserves in its borders, it is not surprising that nearly three-fourths of South Africa’s energy consumption is derived from coal. With this emissions profile in mind, greenhouse gas reductions related to energy – both production and efficiency – will be key drivers for South Africa’s emissions reductions.


SA energy breakdownFigure 1: Total Primary Energy Consumption in South Africa, 2012


The bulk of the current South African energy production is from coal. Coal plays a major role in the economy, both domestically and as an export. Yet as the country acknowledges the need to move to a low-carbon economy, the Departments of Energy and Mineral Resources have collaborated with other key players to develop a Coal Roadmap. Published in 2013, this Roadmap considers four possible scenarios:

  • More of the Same, where limited action is taken on climate change globally and in South Africa;
  • Lags Behind, where the world moves ahead with greenhouse gas emissions mitigation, but South Africa continues to pursue coal as its primary energy source;
  • At the Forefront, where South Africa joins the global leaders in emissions mitigation, while much of the remainder of the world takes limited action; and
  • Low Carbon World, where strong action is taken globally and locally on greenhouse gas emissions mitigation.


Not surprisingly, based on the phrasing of these four scenarios, South Africa’s intention is to be At the Forefront. In this plan, though coal continues to have a role in production and export, renewable and nuclear sources of energy are also developed. This is the aim, despite predictions that electricity generation costs for 2035 will be 8% higher than a More of the Same approach with coal as the sole source for expanding the generation capacity.

South Africa aims to have a nuclear energy capacity of 9600MW by 2030. At present, the Koeberg nuclear plant capacity accounts for 1940 MW. The goal for renewable energy capacity is 18200 MW by 2030. The solar industry has recently been hailed as the world’s most attractive for investors. This is due to the government’s new Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Program (REIPPP) which set a target of 84000 MW by 2030. It also allows Eskom to purchase power from private sources. As a result, South Africa’s solar industry is expected to grow from <1% in 2012 to 12% in 2020. By that time, solar will likely be the cheapest energy source available. This is good news, given the Coal Roadmap’s dire prediction that developing other sources of energy would raise the cost of electricity generation as compared to expanding coal as the only source.

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