On 19 – 20 April 2023 Eskom co-hosted a two day international workshop focusing on ‘The Future of Coal in The Transitioning Energy Landscape’. Delegates from all over the world, Australia, Asia, Europe, South Africa and the USA gathered in the beautiful city of Cape Town, South Africa, to participate in this topical event. The workshop was organised by Eskom Research, Testing and Development (RT&D) RT&D in collaboration with the International Centre for Sustainable Carbon (ICSC), based in London. It was invaluable to be in the same room with industry experts and participate in live discussions.

This international event had a packed programme comprising eight sessions covering themes ranging from policies governing the future use of coal, to the realities of what is actually happening on the ground, the integration of variable renewable energy (VRE), coal in the circular economy, repowering and repurposing, and others.

The workshop opened with keynote addresses from senior executives of Eskom and ICSC. In his keynote address the Eskom Group Chief Operations Officer, Mr Jan Oberholzer, emphasised the need for a balanced energy mix and continuous review of the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2019, saying that it should be treated as a ‘live document’ given the current outlook and the challenges facing the energy sector.

Energy policies was the theme of the second session. From Japan, delegates from the Environment Department of the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), Messrs Makoto Nunokawa (Director) and Takuya Kanda (Chief Officer) showcased NEDO’s efforts to develop carbon recycling/CCUS technologies to achieve carbon neutrality in Japan by 2050. Japan depends largely on fossil fuels, most of which are imported. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, thermal power generation has increased, with dependency on fossil fuels at 84.8% in 2019.

Another thought-provoking presentation was delivered by Germany’s VGBE Executive Managing Director Dr Oliver Then on security of supply, decarbonisation and affordability in Europe. Dr Then shared his insights on the importing of natural gas into Europe. Did you know in 2021, the EU imported 83% of the natural gas used for its annual electricity generation? Russia was the largest supplier of natural gas, by far, supplying up to 30% of that used by the power sector. In 2022 Russia gradually stopped gas supplies via the Jamal and Nord Stream 1 pipelines and the EU increased LNG imports via the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. Furthermore, Germany has closed all its coal mines and currently imports coal from countries such as South Africa whenever the need arises.

SANEDI Chief Executive Officer Dr Titus Mathe presented South Africa’s cleaner fossil roadmap. Dr. Mathe stressed that the IRP 2019 will continue to be the main policy and guide for South Africa’s roadmap to a low carbon economy. He explained that in the short to medium term baseload power will come from coal-fired power plants and the Koeberg nuclear power plant. This means it is very important to accelerate the uptake of emissions abatement technologies and energy efficiency initiatives including implementation of robust maintenance programmes at these plants and to deploy digitalisation where necessary.

In the third session on the realities resulting from energy policies, presentations on loadshedding in South Africa were made by Eskom’s’ Corporate Specialist Mr Deon Joubert and General Manager Generation Engineering Mr Thomas Conradie. Mr Joubert’s enlightening talk had a focus on the historic perspective of loadshedding and how current the situation had arisen while Mr Conradie paid particular attention to Eskom’s current technical performance and recovery plans.

The realities of the energy transition in Australia were presented by Dr Noel Simento of ANLEC, Australia. Dr Simento gave an update on the transition journey in Australia as they move to a lower emissions system with a focus on the electricity sector. He explored the results of various modelling exercises which reveal the challenges facing the country, including the report ‘Keeping the lights on in a decarbonized National Electricity Market (NEM) – examining the lowest cost pathway’. The new Australian government has set emissions targets with the aspiration of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. In the past 10 years Australia has managed to decommission about 5 GW of coal-fired generation and introduce 22 GW of renewable energy. This in turn has reduced emissions by 30%. However, another result has been large prices hikes in the cost of electricity which is a huge concern for Australian citizens. The second challenge presented by this transition is the threat to the reliability of supply, which is largely weather-dependent as no firm capacity has been built in the last 10 years.

The last session of day 1 explored the integration of variable renewable energy (VRE). Dr Mai Bui (Imperial College London) described their work on modelling VRE and the role of dispatchable energy sources in maintaining a reliable grid. Azwimbavhi Mamanyuha (Eskom Distribution) described Eskom’s pursuit of renewable power. As more VRE is fed into the grid, coal-fired power plants have to operate increasingly flexibly to maintain grid stability and Karl Bindemann (Luth Consulting, UK) gave practical insights into how to improve the flexibility of a power plant. This was followed by Ms Fulufhelo Maraknise’s description of generation unit flexibility at Eskom and Caswell Ndhlovu’s analysis of the impact of VRE on the stability of the Eskom grid.

The day closed with a Gala Dinner generously sponsored and hosted by SANEDI. SANEDI Chairperson Mr Sicelo Xulu, welcomed the guests and emphasized the need to have industry experts with their hands on decks. The acting Deputy Director, General Department of Public Enterprise, Mr Donald Nkadimeng applauded the workshop organisers and speakers, saying the workshop could not have been more timely.

Day 2 of the workshop opened with a session on carbon in the circular economy. Eskom RT&D’s Dr Kelley Reynolds-Clausen introduced Eskom’s work on ash and gypsum utilisation. Dr Kelley touched on intriguing elements such as the ‘Ash and Gypsum Beneficiation Strategy 2015-18’, which was raised by the South African government as an opportunity for job creation and social uplift in Mpumalanga. She also described the potential value of rare earth elements which could possibly be extracted from ash. The second presentation was a perspective on waste to energy and cofiring, from SANEDI’s General Manager, Prof Prathaban Moodley. He voiced the compelling reasons for net zero and referred to the improved air quality experienced in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The presentation also covered fascinating subjects such as the key elements of the South African Waste to Energy Roadmap. The session closed with Mr Orevaoghene Eterigho-Ikelegbe’s (University of Witwatersrand) presentation on other valuable materials that can be retrieved from coal waste in a more circular economy.

Repowering and repurposing, a very topical subject in the transitioning energy landscape, was the theme of the next session, chaired by Prof Wikus van Niekerk from Stellenbosch University. Ms Debo Adams (ICSC Studies Manager, UK) opened the session by demonstrating the reasons for repurposing, and giving examples from around the world on how coal assets can be repurposed and used for energy generation, storage, nature recovery and cultural destinations. Mr Nick Singh (who heads the Smart Grid Centre of Excellence Manager at Eskom RT&D) presented the ongoing repowering and repurposing work at Komati Power Station, one of Eskom’s many flagship projects. Mr Singh shared two phases of repowering at Komati which range from a solar PV, Battery Energy Storage System (BESS) and wind. This fascinating presentation included a video which showed how this critical project will touch the livelihoods of local communities including socio-economic uplift initiatives such as communities’ skills upliftment, staff reskilling and retaining, localisation and manufacturing.

The Just Energy Transition (JET) session followed, and was chaired by Mr Azwimbavhi Mamanyuha (Eskom Distribution Division’s General Manager for Technology Engineering). The first presenter was Ms Beauty Mazibuko, (Senior Consultant for Socio-economic Development, Eskom’s Risk and Sustainability Division) who described the socio-economic impact of shutting down coal-fired power stations in South Africa. Ms Mazibuko outlined the socio-economic impact studies conducted across the ten coal-fired power stations in Mpumalanga, including Komati, Hendrina and Grootvlei. She described the extensive engagement which goes on, including local community involvement, and empowerment and inclusion of stakeholders, such as DTI, DPE, DMRE, Mpumalanga District and Local government, Labour, which were undertaken as part of the study. Ms Wendy Poulton (Secretary General of the South African National Energy Association, SANEA) gave an overview of South African Just Energy Transition skills risks. SANEA has produced five South African energy risk reports and each year the reports are reviewed and evolve to deal with the increasing uncertainty. The SANEA presentation also covered the South African Energy Skills Roadmap which is a collaboration of various stakeholders which includes, but is not limited to, SANEA, University of Witwatersrand, GIZ, Centre for Researching Education and Labour. The situation regarding the just transition in Europe was described by Dr Gianni Serra (Director of Sotacarbo, Italy). Dr Serra outlined the European Green Deal which covered subjects such as European Transition to a circular economy, zero pollution Europe, transformation of rural areas and agriculture. The presentation made mention of the European Just Transition Fund (JTF) which is estimated at €17 billion, only a fraction of that allocated to the REPowerEU programme. The key message of the presentation was that the just transition should leave no one behind and should ‘reach the furthest behind first’.

The final session explored the future of coal – the main theme of the workshop, and was chaired by Eskom’s JET office General Manager Dr Vikesh Rajpaul. Mr Snehal Nagar (Eskom acting General Manager, Primary Energy) described South Africa’s coal and security of supply. He explained how Eskom is navigating a dynamic coal environment with many challenges to manage. These challenges include the shortfall of coal supply at a number of power stations as long term contracts come to an end, and increased pressure from local communities for the localisation of Eskom goods and services.

Dr Li Li (Shanghai Shenergy, China) showed how the efficiency of coal-fired power plant in China had been improved in some examples to almost 50%. He described Shanghai Shenergy’s three step approach to improving coal plant; first is energy efficiency to reduce emissions, then cofiring with biomass to attain carbon neutrality, and lastly carbon capture. He shared these approaches using a fascinating Shanghai Shenergy project, the Xuzhou Project.

The workshop was also graced by the presence of exhibitors from Eskom Science Expo, Stellenbosch University’s Renewable Energy Specialisation Centre, SANEDI, Babcock and ICSC who showcased their various innovations relevant to the theme of the workshop.

In closing the workshop, Dr Andrew Minchener (General Manager ICSC, UK) thanked all the stakeholders for making the event a success. Special gratitude was expressed to RT&D General Manager Ms Prudence Madiba and her team for their cooperation in producing such a stimulating and insightful event. The ICSC looked forward to further collaboration with Eskom RT&D.

blog by Morakanele Thipe