Supplies of coal in South African mines are quickly running out. Coal was historically important to the development of South Africa as an industrialized nation. Everything from steel mills to district heating services was powered by coal. This was on top of the fact that electrical power facilities throughout the country were using a great deal of coal as well during the same time period.
Other sources of power had to be imported into the country, which made coal attractive from an economic standpoint. Coal is such an important source of energy that South African engineers were constructing steam locomotives as late as 1981. All this activity proved to be a huge drain on domestic supplies of coal.
Industrial users of coal have drastically shrunk in the last decade, but burning coal generates over 92 percent of all electrical power in South Africa. Those same industrial operations that once burned coal directly have now switched to consuming electricity instead. Slightly under 41 percent of electricity generated in the country goes to power the industrial sector. Coal thus remains extremely important to the country’s economy, though domestic supplies are running dry.
Burning this much coal obviously produces a great deal of carbon emissions. It also generates a great deal of sulfur dioxide, which is probably contributing to acid rainfall. Smog in urban areas continues to increase as well, which is also not helped by the large number of cars clogging metropolitan highways.
South African geologists believe that the country has extremely limited supplies of natural gas. Open cycle gas turbines are being constructed that will make the best use of these limited supplies. Atomic power is increasingly being viewed as domestically sustainable, and currently plans call for 13 percent of the energy mix to come from nuclear sources by 2030. There are plans to construct a total of six new nuclear reactors over the next 15 years.
South Africa’s government as well as a number of private developers have together launched a new clean coal initiative. More efficient furnaces constructed by 2025 would produce less sulfur while stretching out the limited stores of coal. Carbon capture storage systems should be able to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that plants emit. This will help South African authorities to meet the difficult carbon goals that they have set for the next 15 years.
Legislators have also introduced new tax incentives and a number of rebates that are designed to reward industrial users of electricity who reduce their demand. Original plans called for a total reduction by 12 percent by the year 2015. This didn’t happen, but more recent plans have set more stringent goals for the year 2030.
Wind energy has largely been ignored in most South African feasibility studies. Plains along the Vaal River and throughout the Northern Cape could play host to windmills that might generate a huge amount of electrical power. Regardless of which solution authorities select, however, they will have to make a decision before serious environmental and economic consequences begin to influence the energy sector.