The SA economy is still heavily reliant on coal, even though its market share has declined in recent years.

South Africa tops G20 countries in terms of reliance on coal for electricity.While the country has increased the inclusion of renewables such as wind and solar power in the electricity mix, it is still below the global average of 9.4%.Researchers put forward that the escalating costs of new coal plants have contributed to Eskom’s poor financial situation and this has led to increased electricity tariffs.South Africa tops the G20 countries in terms of reliance on coal for electricity, a global review by independent climate and energy think tank Ember shows.

Ember on Monday released its annual global electricity review for 2021. The report analyses electricity data from every country in the world.

“In 2020, 86% of South Africa’s electricity came from coal compared to the global average of 34%,” the report stated. Second to South Africa is India, which relies on coal for 71% of its electricity.

By contrast, renewable power sources wind and solar have tripled since 2015 to 6% of South Africa’s electricity mix. This is still below the global average of 9.4%.

Overall South Africa’s reliance on fossil fuels for electricity stands at 89%, down from 93% in 2015. Fossil fuel reliance has declined due to falling coal generation mainly owing the unreliability of coal plants. This in turn has contributed to the increased use of renewables, the report indicated.

By comparison, in the US, where the closure of coal plants has resulted in the decline in coal generation, South Africa’s “unprecedented” electricity crisis is what’s driving coal’s demise, according to the report.

READ | Governor Kganyago: We have to open up the generation space to deal with energy constraintsThe escalating costs of new coal plants have contributed to Eskom’s financial woes; the power utility has had to increase electricity tariffs, but this in turn negatively impacted electricity demand.

Demand for electricity has fallen by 5.4% since 2015, the report noted.

During 2020, electricity demand fell by 4.3% mainly due to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and load shedding brought on by unplanned outages of coal plants, the report highlighted.

“The pandemic had a large impact on electricity demand, with data from Eskom suggesting demand was 5TWh less than predicted in April alone during the most severe restrictions.” Coal generation specifically fell by 5.2% and nuclear power generation fell by 15.2% – this as Koeberg went through scheduled maintenance.

Coal’s market share has fallen 7% in South Africa, which is still slower than that of other G20 countries. Graphic: Ember

The report indicated that decarbonising such a coal-reliant system as South Africa’s will be challenging and this will be exacerbated by reliability issues of the grid, and Eskom’s poor financial situation. Eskom faces ballooning debt of more than R480 billion. Debt owed by municipalities is about R30 billion.

A transition away from coal to renewables, however, will have to be just, the report noted: “…with the economy fostering persistent inequality and highly intertwined with coal, it is absolutely imperative that any transition is just, and planned with socioeconomic development at its core.”

The report also welcomed Eskom’s decision to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 as a signal of the direction the energy sector is taking.