Sustainable Coal Use in South Africa – Expert Workshop, 25 April 2017

The last week of April found seven members of the IEA Clean Coal Centre staff in South Africa. Having staggered off bleary eyed from a long flight from the UK, we were immediately whisked away by our affable and knowledgeable guide, Eskom’s Rozanne Harding.

An important part of the activities planned for the week-long visit included an expert workshop hosted by Eskom at their Research, Testing and Development facilities located at Rosherville, in the suburbs of Johannesburg. The event proved to be a popular one. The audience was limited to around a hundred, comprising academics, staff from different departments of Eskom, as well as the energy sector in general. The team and audience were welcomed and the proceedings opened by Barry MacColl, General Manager of the Rosherville centre, and Vice Chair of the IEA CCC Executive Committee. He gave an overview of the current energy situation in South Africa and highlighted some of the issues being faced. After years of reporting that South Africa was short of electricity, it was quite a surprise to hear that there is now a modest surplus. This has resulted largely from new capacity coming on line, coupled with a slowdown in the economy.

General Manager of the IEA CCC, Dr Andrew Minchener then took the stage to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities for Clean Coal Technologies around the world, and ways in which the Centre was helping drive the process forward.  He was followed by CCC ExCo Chair, Professor Jürgen-Friedrich Hake, who talked about the status of the German Energiewende (‘energy transition’), Germany’s attempt to move towards a reliable, low carbon, environmentally sound, and affordable energy supply.

There then followed a series of presentations from CCC authors, focused mainly on recent studies published by the Centre. I began with an overview of ways to improve the flexibility of coal-fired power plants by combining/hybridising with solar thermal power or cofiring natural gas. South Africa has plenty of sunshine but at the moment, little gas.

Anne Carpenter followed with a presentation that examined water issues for coal-fired power plants. This is a particularly important issue in South Africa, as in many parts of the country, water resources are scarce. The topic is also of growing importance in other parts of the world, and Anne outlined various ways in which the water requirement of power plants can be reduced. A good example is the adoption of dry cooling – we had seen such an installation the day before, under construction at Eskom’s impressive new power project at Kusile.

Paul Baruya spoke about current trends in the financing of coal-fired power plants and the role played by the different types of banks, funding agencies, and finance houses. Against a background of headline media reports that funding for coal-fired power plants was becoming effectively unattainable, Paul’s recent report has shown that this is not necessarily the case, with project finance still available from various financial institutions.

Next up was Dr Ian Barnes who outlined the potential for upgrading South Africa’s coal power fleet through an aggressive HELE (high efficiency low emissions) pathway, which would mean retiring older plant after 25 years’ service and replacing these units and building further ones as required to meet increasing power demand with state-of-the-art technologies such as ultrasupercritical. Ian’s presentation drew upon a recent CCC study that examined the prospects for HELE upgrades in ten coal-using countries that included South Africa. He explained that South Africa had opted for supercritical rather than the more efficient ultrasupercritical for new plant because of the long lead times involved and the perceived lower risk at the outset. CCC intends to undertake a detailed study of the HELE options for South Africa in the near future.

Following on from Ian’s interesting presentation, it was me once again, this time to talk about the current status and future of low quality coals, and coal beneficiation. South Africa’s coals are characterised by high ash content, but as elsewhere, they are of strategic importance and used by Eskom to generate much of the country’s electricity. This situation is unlikely to change significantly in the foreseeable future. The importance of coal cleaning was stressed, as coal quality impacts on virtually all aspects of power plant operation.

The final topic was covered by Toby Lockwood, who spoke about Carbon Capture and Storage, focusing mainly on the global status of the technology and the challenges it still faces. He described the background to the different CCS technologies and the various ups and downs that have marked their progress over the past decade or so. The global financial crisis and other factors meant that many proposed projects failed to materialise. However, more recently, there has been something of a resurgence in interest, with several important projects coming on line.

Immediately after the final presentation, a discussion session was held, led by Jürgen, Andrew and Barry. It was a lively interactive affair, and covered a range of topics and questions from the audience. It would have carried on much longer, but at 3 o’clock sharp, we were chased out by Eskom’s Rozanne and driven to Johannesburg airport for a flight to Cape Town, the team’s next port of call.

All in all, it was a stimulating and mutually beneficial day. The presentations were well received, there was useful discussion with the audience, and valuable contacts were made – a good result all round!

The presentations are available from the website.