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Struggles with the energy transition

Many of us are keen for the energy transition to succeed. We want it to be just, clean, rapid and for net zero emissions to be achieved sometime around 2050.
Although, as Lloyd Setlhogo (Eskom) pointed out at the ICSC 3rd Workshop on the Energy Transition, in Cape Town, in collaboration with Eskom on 24-25 April 2024, half of us in the room may not be around to witness this milestone. Mr Dan Marokane (GCE, Eskom) opened the workshop with an acknowledgement of the importance of the energy transition, while reminding the 130 delegates that reliable power supplies are fundamental to modern life and economic development. Countries such as South Africa, which have a high dependence on coal cannot afford to phase it out anytime soon.

That was just one sobering thought of many shared at the Workshop as every country faces its own struggles to match the reality of energy provision on the ground with aspirations for achieving net zero emissions. Even Germany is not on course – the low carbon nuclear power stations have been closed, natural gas can no longer be imported from Russia and the coal-fired power plants are being phased out. As a result, Dr Oliver Then (vgbe, Germany) explained that power is increasingly expensive and Germany has become an energy importer rather than exporter.

Ritusko Sanuki (NEDO, Japan) described their work on carbon capture, utilisation and storage, with a focus on the utilisation. This makes sense, especially in Japan, which will continue to rely on fossil fuels for many years and has limited storage options. This serves as just one example of how every country must look at its own resources and identify its own best pathways for the energy transition. It also brings home the importance of these international events on the topic, so we can all learn from each other and share our ideas, successes and failures.

As coal is going to continue to be widely used – in China, India, South Africa and many other countries, it is vital to reduce the emissions from these power plants as far and as fast as possible. Dr Li Li from Shanghai Shenergy gave an inspirational update on developments in China where efficiencies of almost 50% have been achieved on existing power plant via a number of innovative improvement steps (compared to a global average of around 37.5%). Stephen Storm (EPRI, USA) showed clearly how increasing the share of variable renewable energy feeding into the grid means that the dispatchable (generally fossil-fuelled) power has to operate more flexibly to balance out supplies. There are many consequences to increasing the proportion of VRE in energy supplies, and some negative impacts.

A session on CCUS opened the second day, led by Dr Mohammad Abu Zahra (GCCSI, MENA) who gave an informative update on the increasing uptake of CCS. There are exciting developments and projects proceeding in the MENA region, but many more are needed. Prof Jenny Jones (University of Leeds, UK) broadened out the discussion to include cofiring with biomass and the potential role of bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) using ongoing work at Drax power plant in the UK as an example. Cofiring and BECCS are not a universal solution, but again where infrastructure and resources are in place, it may be an appropriate way to reduce emissions while providing some more dispatchable, renewable power.

The integration of energy sources to maintain a stable grid, which had been introduced by Stephen Storm was developed further in session 6. I dived more deeply into the role of the grid and how to maintain stable supplies, using Mike Garwood’s report for the ICSC which highlights the risks to electricity supplies of increasing the share of VRE and the importance of dispatchable supplies worldwide to keep the lights on. The South African perspective was expertly delivered by Ulrich Minaar (Eskom). The potential of smart grids in alleviating the situation was explored by Hermanus van Dyk Fourie (Huawei).

The workshop closed with a fascinating look towards the future, led by Dr Alex Moyes (Ramaco, USA). He described the importance of rare earth elements (REE) in all modern technologies and their role in the energy transition, before detailing the R&D at Ramaco in Wyoming in extracting them from the clay surrounding the coal seams in their mine where high concentrations have been identified. Prof Nicola Wagner (University of Johannesburg) completed the session by describing her team’s work on identifying and extracting REE from coal ash in South Africa. If successful, these projects could turn a multi-million tonne waste product into a valuable resource.

Prudence Madiba (Eskom) closed the meeting by thanking everyone generously for all their efforts in creating and contributing to such a stimulating, productive and valuable event. We, at the ICSC, are extremely grateful to our colleagues at Eskom for their collaboration and massive contribution to creating this workshop, and to Dr Titus Mathe and his colleagues at SANEDI for their insightful presentations and generous hosting of the workshop dinner. The workshop presentations are available to download from this page.