Louis Jestin – Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University

Titus Mathe – General Manager – Group Technology at Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd

Michał Kurtyka: Let’s jump right into the topic of  the future of energy and then discuss how it relates to the system in South Africa, what challenges are ahead of this system, how the system is working today, what the issues you are focusing on are, how we can imagine transition from today to 2050- because I will ask you what the energy world will look like in 2050.- Then we can make a comparison with the Polish situation and talk  a little about the general panorama of renewables, gas, how South Africa is also facing a very particular situation in terms of coal gasification. I don’t think that any other country is doing something like that, but we will discuss it.

It will be great to have your insight ahead of the COP, what is the future of the world, what is the future of energy and what implications it can also have for industry, for society and for all of us.

Let me welcome you here in Kraków and I know that Kraków is particularly close to the heart of Louis. I’m very pleased to welcome today: Professor Louis Jestin who is currently Head of Power Plant Engineering Institute in Eskom, South Africa and Dr. Titus Mattel – Head of technology group in Eskom. I’m honored to have both of you here with me in Kraków to discuss the future of energy. I will start with an easy question – so what is the future of energy and what will it be like, in particular, in 30 years from now, in 2050?

Titus Mate: Minister thank you for the invite. Yes, you are correct, the big debate about the future of energy is something very relevant in South Africa and Eskom, as a State entity, is largely responsible for generating electricity in South Africa. For now, the power sector in South Africa is largely dominated by coal but, as you know, South Africa is very much committed to moving away from coal to cleaner technologies. So from today until 2050, we hope to see ourselves transitioning towards renewables, solar PV, wind technology and possibly also nuclear, which is not off the table. We are particularly worried about how we transition into the renewables, because, as you know, we have very serious social challenges within the country: people are unemployed, the coal sector provides quite a lot of jobs in South Africa, so as we move towards the future, we need to take this into account. But we are very much committed to clean technology and being forward looking as a country.

MK: You have 30 years for this ambitious transition but we can say also, taking into account the inertia in the energy infrastructure, it’s only  30 years. How is such a transition organized in only 30 years?

TM: We organize ourselves together with the universities, we carry out a lot of studies to make sure that the decisions that we take on going forward are well informed, with the involvement of academies inside Africa supported by international experts to really understand how we should transition going forward. We are currently in the process of finalizing the integrated resource plan for South Africa taking us up to 2050. It’s in the public domain. It will be closed for public comments in the near future. So these are the processes that we are following to make sure that the process of deciding how best to move forward is very inclusive and includes anyone in the country and is also well informed by other best practices happening around the world.

MK: Louis, Professor Jestin, you are both well acquainted with Poland, you have worked in here in Kraków for a couple of years on the Polish energy sector and currently you are working on the South African energy sector. Is there much difference?

Louis Jestin: No, in fact, you are making a very good point, Minister. I’m very pleased to be with you again today as well, especially with Titus from South Africa. I recognize the power sector of Poland as very similar to South Africa, mainly based on coal, and here in Poland and in Europe we have been working to develop clean coal technologies as is happening in South Africa. In S.A they are also working with a number of new coal power plants based on clean coal technology, so we are cooperating together, learning from Poland’s experiences. Today we are in a power station of Kozienice and now we hope to install a collaboration between the two countries to increase clean coal technologies and decrease the share of coal in the energy sector, as Titus just said. What is interesting to see in South Africa is that, South Africa has been developing what we call gasification processes to produce oil mainly for transport for a long time. So they have huge capacity of oil production based on, or coming from, coal from technology called gasification of coal which I see as very particular and which could contribute to keeping the coal clean in the future, with this IGCC type of technology developing in South Africa and maybe even in Poland. Today we have already discussed this in Poland as well. So I’m not saying that coal will be the future but that coal will still be part of the mix for the future.

MK: How do you imagine the switch from coal to fuel when there are so many other types of sustainable technologies, for example for mobility. Right now we are talking about electromobility, electric cars. How do you see both developments?

LJ: Of course, you are right in saying that electricity will be part of mobility and it has already started but there are still some gaps in this technology such as ensuring the autonomy of the car for distances that are long enough and it’s a lot of infrastructure to be put in place. If this doesn’t exist we’ll need the transition as well and oil will continue to be used during that period together also perhaps with hydrogen. So yes, in 30 years certainly we will see a lot of changes, but in transport especially oil will continue to be used for quite a while.

MK: Dr Mattel, South Africa is a very big country with a very large economy.  Louis told me that 45 % of energy production of the entire African continent comes from South Africa. So it’s a huge economy which will have a significant impact on the future of energy in the African continent. What are the parallels between your situation and other countries or  is it a situation specific to South Africa only. How do you see it?

TM: South Africa is in a very unique situation. First of all – the resources. As you know we have plenty of coal, we also have plenty of wind as well as sun and all the material utilized in the production of nuclear power. So we have all of the fuel sources that you can think of making us very unique in that way. And whatever happens in South Africa, as you correctly indicated, will influence the rest of the continent. South Africa is always called the entry point to Africa. So whatever happens in South Africa is going to influence what happens in the rest of Africa. However, we are studying what has happened in other countries. Today, for instance, when we visited your power plant, Enea, we learnt that they’ve implemented quite a lot of initiatives to reduce the emissions: to reduce the NOx emissions in the power plant, to reduce the Sulphur emissions in the power plant, to reduce the particulates in the power plant. And we are learning from these experiences what we can then apply in South Africa. As we transition to cleaner technologies, we first need to deal with the existing coal fire power stations and implement the cleaner technologies to make sure that we don’t negatively impact the environment. And, of course, we welcome all countries to come to South Africa to partner with us. South Africa is in a very unique situation. The power plants, the technologies that we are installing, applying in the country, most of them come from Europe, so there is quite a strong presence of European companies in South Africa. We need, however, to transfer the skills that are coming from Europe, to the local community, so we can drive the economy in partnership with the locals so that it’s sustainable going forward.

MK: But can you imagine a future which is 100% based on renewable technologies? You said that in South Africa there is a lot of wind, there is  a lot of solar energy – that’s great news, but these are resources that are not that simple to exploit, because we have the problem of intermittency. When the sun is not shining, when the wind is not blowing the electricity necessary for the economy is not being produced. It’s not that simple to adjust the consumption profiles to the production constraints in this regard. How do you intend to approach this problem?

TM: You are correct. No doubt moving forward there will still be coal in the future. But when talking about clean coal, gasification could be an option because, as you know, sun and wind are not always available and their storage technology are currently being developed, such as storage involving generation of hydrogen for fuel cells. All of these technologies are going to be part of the mix going forward. However, we all agree that we have to migrate away from coal. It may not happen overnight, it may not happen over the next 20-50 years, but all of these technologies will be part of the energy mix, especially in South Africa. The integrated resource plan that we are finalizing takes this into account. It includes coal, renewables, solar PV and wind, as well as gas. Unfortunately, we do not have gas in the country, however we may be cooperating with other countries to import the gas and build the infrastructure. We still believe that there is room for nuclear, of course you know the debate around the nuclear safety issues etc. but we still believe that there is room for nuclear in the future. So all of these technologies will be on the table.

MK: But you do not have a nuclear power plant yet, right?

TM: We’re currently running 2 units in the country: in the south part of the country based on the French technology. We had plans to build up to 9000MW of nuclear but for the current plan that we’re looking at it’s off the table for various reasons: the costs as the country’s very difficult current economic situation, so we believe that at the moment it’s not affordable to build a nuclear power plant. The solar PV and wind technology and coal technologies are very much more affordable. And we may look at retrofitting the existing coal fire power stations, retrofitting with some of the cleaner technologies that are being implemented in other countries, including Poland. And also newer technologies: gasification of coal as well as fluidized bed, circulating fluidized bed that other countries are implementing.

MK: There are indeed many parallels between Poland and South Africa: both countries have coal, both countries rely on this for the provision of jobs dependent on coal. So how do you address the issue not only of energy transition but also of social transition in this regard?

TM: We were discussing it today. We can start with skills development and skill transfer. We can learnt quite a lot from Poland- I think you’ve got a very highly skilled labor force. We are relatively behind in South Africa so we can cooperate in skill transfer and also the program that we initiated a couple of years ago through Professor Jestin: the cooperation between universities. We’ve got quite a number of universities in South Africa but these tend to work in isolation and not work as a team to solve a particular challenge. I think these are the areas that South Africa and Poland can collaborate in to try to address some of the climate change related issues going forward. And you have just built a 1075 MW power plant, very similar to the power plant that we are currently building in South Africa: same technology and we can actually share quite a lot of lessons to help optimize these plants in the future.

MK: When you think of solar, wind, what do you prefer and why?

TM: If you look at the cost implications: solar PV is probably the cheapest at the moment but with  the grid that we are running in the country, it’s very difficult to integrate solar PV. It’s available between roughly 9 am in the morning till about 4pm in the afternoon. The peak amount in South Africa is between 4pm and roughly 8pm in the evening, so we have a challenge. However, it’s the cheapest at the moment. Wind is available throughout. Sometimes it’s available in the evening during the peak time, but again, if it’s not available for the peak time, you select the coal fire power plant. But if you are asking me personally I believe that solar PV is probably the most preferred technology going forward as opposed to wind. Wind is still a mechanical process whereas the solar PV once it is installed, lasts for 40 – 50 years, there are no moving parts, so the maintenance costs of the solar PV are well below the maintenance costs of wind systems.

MK: Professor, if I remember correctly, South Africa particularly has a lot of sun making solar PV a really good option for the country. How do you see the development of this technology and what do you think could be most appropriate for South Africa?

LJ: As you said, the transition is the key and the speed with which to make things to happen, in order not to put the electricity sector in danger because if that happens it will be the worst scenario for the population. Electricity, as you well know, drives the economy, so with that kind of risk timing is essential. Looking at renewable energies PVs are already developed. They will definitely continue to further develop, maybe more effectively making the system more efficient. The life cycle of the PV has to be looked at more carefully as well, however, to find out exactly what we do when we produce the panel, how much energy we’ve already consumed to produce the panel, the amount of emissions to develop the panel and so on. The PV ialready exists at quite a low cost but do we really look carefully at the life cycle? I know that there are some studies but with every new technology, battery efficiency, etc., we need to even look more closely at the life cycle. As you know, there is another solar technology which is called CSP (concentrating solar power) the technology of which today is, of course, a bit more expensive than the PV but there are advantages because you can store energy in a CSP plant. You can store energy and run a plant even when there is no sun, especially during the evening peak, to produce electricity. CSP is being developed especially in Chile, the US, Australia etc. CSP should be used in South Africa as well, because we have a region as big as France, where there are only minerals, it’s a semi desert with 50% more sun than in Spain and this technology could be adapted. There is a huge capacity there, but today it is a bit expensive compared to what the population is able to pay, to afford. So the 30 years you are talking about is maybe too short, but I am sure that in 50 years or 60 years we will see these CSP in a large scale, especially in a region like South Africa and southern Africa more generally and, of course, north Africa as well as the Sahara desert where there is huge potential to put CSP to use and, as you said, maybe even to produce hydrogen out of electricity produced by PV. A good combination of things can make a huge difference.

MK: Do you have already some CSP pilot projects in South Africa?

LJ: Yes, we already have a few plants running, from 50 to 100 MW, so quite large plants.

MK: Can you say a few words about how it works?

LJ: There are different technologies. On the CSP side you capture the sun and you concentrate it on something. It can be concentrated on the tower, where all the mirrors are oriented towards the tower which is like a boiler so the rest of the plant is comparable to any existing nuclear plant or coal plant or gas plant meaning the technology is nothing new.

MK: The technology is the same – we are not burning coal or gas in order to provide heat, but are using solar energy.

LJ: Yes, so based on the ranking circle, which is already noted, all the technologies are very well known, just the primary energy is different. It’s not coal, gas or nuclear, it’s solar.

And there is another similar technology called “parabolic trough”. You have parabola, a long parabola, and as the focal line of the parabola you have a tube where you have a circulating fluid – it can be oil or salt which gives you a much higher efficiency. We are working with salt at the moment and we can reach a temperature of 600 degrees and achieve a very high efficiency performance. You can say that efficiency doesn’t count when you are working with the sun, because the sun is free, but the capital invested is less because you need fewer panels to recover the energy meaning it is more economically viable when the efficiency increases.

MK: What is the price differential right now?

LJ: Today typically for the PV – about 60 dollars per MWh for generation and CSPs are approximately 120 dollars as in a project that we are building in Morocco now with around these costs. In most of the countries in the world the production of energy from gas is approximately 150-200 dollar per MWh, so it’s much less than the production from gas.

MK: That’s great news. That’s a very natural green energy. It seems that maintenance costs shouldn’t be that important in this case. Is it mostly capital costs or is it also OPEX?

LJ: Currently the largest part of the investment , approximately 50%, is the recovery of the energy from the sun, the panels, which have to rotate etc. Added to this is some OPEX, some operational costs, expenditures to be made, especially to clean the mirror. Solar plants are often in desert areas where there is not much water, so cleaning the panel and so on. Research still has to be carried out and that’s why universities are helping in this area as well to develop a method of cleaning the mirrors.

MK: Are there any another solutions particular to your region such as CSP, which is, as I understand, very well adapted to sun resource of the country? We have been talking about gasification of coal, a very unique situation in South Africa, meaning technology as a substitute for oil. Do you think the production of oil through this gasification industrial process will be growing or remain stable? How do you expect this to evolve?

LJ: Quite a few big units already exist in South Africa, because they are gasifying 50 million tons of coal per year to produce oil. I don’t know the percentage exactly but I think about 50% of the transport by car is provided from oil coming from coal. The leader in that technology is Sasol, which is South African. They are now building a big new plant in the US to gasify coal for the same purpose as well. So the technology exists, it’s not something new and it can improve efficiency as well and, especially when you do bi- or tri-generation based on gasification, you can produce fuel for transport, you can produce electricity out of combined circle linked to the gasification plant or you can produce hydrogen for other purposes, for the fertilizer industry and you can produce heat, when you need heat for heating towns, etc.

So yes, you can do bi-, tri-, quarter-generation based on this technology. It’s a bit complex, of course, it looks like a bit like a refinery but all the companies are used to this type of technology.

MK: Within this landscape of energy where do you think South Africa should place its bets in terms of innovation and research?

LJ: All is open for South Africa, because as Titus said: we have got everything… I mean South Africa has got everything – I use “we” because I consider myself to be a bit South African now: renewable energy, a lot of sun, especially, wind as well, coal, so I think it’s a good mix. This mix can change over time, but when you take a decision in important plants than you are stuck with your big plant for at least 50 years. These decisions have to be made very carefully and in fact when you decide to go for very high CAPEX, very big plants and so on it’s especially risky. But base load, as mentioned, can be done with, nuclear, hydro (there are hydro possibilities as well), and even solar- some parts of the solar can be used for base load. What is needed, then, for finalizing the demand, like more complex peak technologies, is solutions that could be more expensive, like gas for example.

MK: The only thing which is not in South Africa… In the European Union and around the world we are talking a lot about storage technologies, and about lithium-ion batteries, and about how much we need extra capacity of the production of lithium-ion batteries in order to satisfy the demand, the rising demand for electric cars but also demand from the energy system as this storage is becoming more and more necessary for regulatory purposes. What is your view about the evolution of storage? Is it going to play a major role, medium role or is it going to stay where it is right now, basically on the level of very basic support?

TM: Storage is going to be there and it’s necessary, especially if you’re rolling out large quantities of solar PV or wind, you need to store it. The challenge that we have in South Africa is that when you now want to discharge your power from batteries that you‘ve stored the energy in, we have the challenge of how much the system can tolerate. It’s DC power so it’s bidirectional, and the grid that we currently have does not cater for bidirectional supply of power. It caters for one way supply of power. So there are limitations and I think in our grid up to 14% can be accommodated for bidirectional power, also in the wind turbines. However, I see electric vehicles as a huge opportunity, provided of course, that the cost of the electric car is lower. I see that there is a huge opportunity. It can be integrated with ICT technology, the communication system technology, and it’s easy to discharge power from an electric vehicle car at different locations, so you don’t actually discharge it from one central point meaning these issues concerning the overloading of the grid will disappear. So, it’s a big opportunity, but for a country like South Africa, electric cars are now relatively expensive today and also if we are going to use this new technology to displace the generation of power from coal we need to take into account the jobs that are going to be lost, so ideally the manufacturing  of electric vehicles components and electric vehicles themselves will be local to compensate for the job losses. As you shut down your coal plant you need to absorb this labor force somewhere else, whereas the electric vehicles currently on the market are largely imported. If we start manufacturing these locally, including the battery technologies and absorb the labor forces coming from the coal plants I think it will be win-win situation for everyone.

MK: Provided that we are able to manage this transition in terms of skills, because that is not simple and, as you said, is one of the challenges lying ahead of Eskom. Is this also partly the reason for building the institute, in order to build the skills of young and maturing engineers, technicians in order to help you move this transition forward?

LJ: Yes, exactly. This is critical. Energy was already really complex, now even more so . All these new technologies are for the benefit of the humanity, of course, and they are going in the direction of more sun and wind, but we now need the engineers not only to think as engineers as technical people, we need for them to think globally and to think what is coming and to become entrepreneurs as well. We are moving away from this model with the big companies producing all the energy or electricity system for a country. Now it’s more based on competition and IPPs and liberalization of the market and so on and so forth, so it’s very important to have these engineers complement their talents also with the economics and legal aspects. That’s what we are trying to do, we are trying to elevate the skills of engineers, the pure technical skills to become specialists but not only that. We are trying to bring forth their entrepreneurial talents and we are collaborating with the program in Europe, which is powered by EU Energy, and we have good collaboration with the EIT (European Institute of Technology). We are also working with them to train to retrofit, what we call in South Africa, the township, where a lot of people live in very difficult situations.. The goal is to propose new types of dwelling to them, new types of housing and news type of energy as well – why not a centralized heating system based on solar PV panels? We are working on that.

MK: Can it also be a distributed energy system?

LJ: Exactly, yes, a smart grid, as you know. It depends where it is. South Africa is a developed country, so the network exists and covers 90% of the population, but when you get out of South Africa, to southern Africa, then there are several million people without any electricity at all. So of course, there are huge challenges, as well as huge opportunities to go either with grids or without grids. South Africa can serve as a real platform for the development of southern Africa and that’s what we are trying to do in the institute, we are trying to make this happen.

TM: In fact, it’s probably not just southern Africa, the rest of Africa. I think, as much as we in South Africa have developed these networks, established these institutes, it’s very important not to leave the rest of Africa behind. So we, as South Africa, are very much committed to bringing the other countries in Africa to the table. There is quite a lot of development that still needs to happen in the rest of Africa and it’s an opportunity for countries like Poland and other European countries because that’s the new market in the future in which to go and develop new technologies, implement technologies.

MK: That’s absolutely perfect and I’m very happy to be able to share this perspective for 2050 with you. Thank you very much for your vision. It’s very interesting. It will also be very influential on the entire African continent as we have just said. So the transition which is going on in South Africa will definitely be followed by other countries. And you also have great engineers such as Elon Musk that, though they are currently maybe not that associated with South Africa but more with the US, it nevertheless demonstrates the engineering spirit. The entrepreneurs are there and you need to work with them in order to achieve the 2050 ideal for the energy world. I would like to thank you very much. Thank you Titus Mattel and thank you very much Professor Jestin for this discussion and I hope that there will be continuing cooperation between Poland and South Africa, with South Africa also serving as a platform, as an example for others. Thank you!

TM: Thank you very much. We wish you all the best. Now you’ve got a big task ahead: the COP 24 coming up, we wish you all the best. We will be there to support you.

MK: Thank you very much! That’s great.

LJ: And the same from me: all the best for this COP in Katowice. That’s the great time to show Poland as well as the rest of the world. It’s something that I maybe didn’t say during our discussion: electricity is very special thing and cannot afford to be disrupted. And working together through technological councils, through various initiatives on climate change will be great. It’s started already I know, but putting together the people working on different electrical grids of the electrical world will make a big difference.

MK: That rhymes perfectly with the slogan that we have chosen for Katowice, which is: “changing together”, so let’s do it together. Thank you very much.

The interview comes from the book “The Future of Energy” published in 2019 by the Bureau of the COP24 Presidency of the Ministry of Climate and Environment of the Republic of Poland.