The last decade has seen a significant global shift in the planning and development of renewable energy generation.
Countries including South Africa have committed to increased efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change by way of setting ambitious targets of increasing renewable energy generation by more than a quarter of its total energy generation capacity by 2030.
The Integrated Resource Plan gazetted by the Minister of Minerals and Energy; Gwede Mantashe, last year supports the diversification of the country’s energy mix and the development of renewable energy in support of economic development.
In this regard, in order for individual power producers to play an integral role in the renewable energy programme, they will require reliable renewable energy resources and geoscientific information.
Renewable energy generation in South Africa will, to a large degree, focus on solar, wind and hydro-generation power.
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This endeavour will take advantage of regions of the country that are subject to some of the highest levels of solar radiation and on- and offshore wind currents in the world.
In addition, South Africa will investigate the feasibility of geothermal and hydrogen fuel cell technologies. This technological shift in South Africa, and around the world, has already begun to mark a dramatic increase in the demand for certain critical mineral resources.
Creating a sustainable energy supply
The availability, supply and beneficiation of these critical mineral resources are key to sustaining the shift towards renewable energy technologies and, ultimately, climate change mitigation.
These mineral resources include heavy metals such as gallium, germanium and indium, which are needed to support the solar industry, while wind generation is reliant on rare-earth elements.
In addition, hydrogen fuel cell technology and energy storage cannot be developed without resources such as lithium, vanadium, manganese, cobalt, copper and graphite.
The global platinum market produces 7 million ounces per year, including 1 million ounces from the recycling of auto catalysts. Mining accounts for the remaining 6 million ounces, with 80% of this production from southern Africa.
In South Africa, the future of fuel cell technology, which generates clean (non-fossil fuel) energy, is likely to be heavily reliant on the country’s platinum production.
South Africa has a long history as one of the global leaders in the mineral resource industry and remains a leader in the supply of many industrial and precious resources, including platinum group minerals, gold and base metals.
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Currently, the country’s vast mineral inventory is once again proving instrumental in placing the country at the forefront of the renewable energy industry as a potential leader in the production of critical minerals.
The vast repository of critical mineral resources in South Africa may be ascribed to the exceptional and diverse underlying geology of the country. South Africa has a geological history that spans more than 4.5 billion years.
Within this time period, the geology of the subcontinent has undergone several significant phases of evolution and alteration. During these events, hot fluids flowing from deep within the earth’s crust have concentrated to form a wide range of critical mineral resources.
Understanding and characterising geological evolution are therefore key to accurately estimating the extent of the country’s repository of critical mineral resources and extracting these in the most environmentally sustainable manner.
A national custodian
The Council for Geoscience (CGS), an entity of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy is a national custodian of all geoscience information and knowledge in South Africa, aims to undertake integrated geoscience research in direct response to the socio-economic development of the country.
CGS has derived several key programmes to respond to, inter alia, the global demand for critical minerals in support of sustainable renewable energy technologies.
Using fundamental geoscience research for the purposes of characterising and quantifying critical mineral resources, especially those that are needed to sustain renewable energy technologies, CGS aims to accelerate its scientific programme in its pursuit of finding applied geoscience solutions and delineate the occurrences of some critical mineral resources and to answer important questions on how these minerals formed and evolved and where else in the crust that can be found.
In particular, CGS has highlighted how continental collision enabled the emplacement of melt fluids rich in lithium and rare-earth elements along discrete features within the surrounding rocks.
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Newly derived knowledge regarding the orientation and spatial extent of these features is assisting in characterising the potential of these critical mineral resources in the Northern Cape Province and how hot fluids interacted with rocks and collected certain heavy metals such as vanadium, manganese and cobalt and concentrated these along very specific horizons of rock formations.
As indicated in the 2019 Integrated Resource Plan, the success of implementing a sound energy mix to meet the demands of South Africa depends on prudent integration of all available sources of energy; renewable and non-renewable; while promoting environmental steward of responsibly reducing the carbon footprint of South Africa through various programmes such as the just transition, storage and utilisation of carbon, and others.