South Africa shows how quick an energy transition can be. In four years, with coal and nuclear power stations on hold, South Africa’s renewable energy program has nearly 100 plants in development. Leonie Joubert takes an in-depth look.

South Africa’s energy sector is changing so quickly, this publication may well be out of date before the year is out. In four years, the country’s utility-scale renewable energy program has nearly 100 plants at various stages of development. The cost of solar and wind energy has dropped so significantly they are now cheaper than coal power. The country’s two new coal power stations, which should have been completed in 2011, are still not ready to go online. And in the past four months, the political ground has turned to quicksand under plans to build six to eight nuclear power stations.

If anything, this shows how quickly this country’s transition away from mega-infrastructure carbon-intensive energy investment could be.

New-build coal: big, expensive, and behind schedule

In 2007, when construction began on the first of two new coal-fired power stations – Kusile and Medupi in Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces – the two were designed to add 9.6 GW of electricity to the grid, and were due to come online in 2011. They were expected to cost R69.1 billion (US$ 4.5 billion at current exchange rates) and R80.6 billion (US$ 5.3 billion), respectively.

By early 2016, the plants were still not completed. Their anticipated cost has ballooned to double the original price, now figured at R154.2 billion (US$ 10 billion), and R172.2 billion (US$ 11 billion). And their procurement has been dogged with accusations of corruption, which have been widely reported in local media.

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