South Africa’s energy storage opportunity lies in the value chain

IN a year when African economies are battling to stay on course due to a global pandemic, it has become urgent for South Africa to unlock the potential of sectors that can enable new industries for economic growth.

In order to meaningfully participate in the post Covid-19 economic recovery efforts that African countries will pursue in the coming years, a ripe opportunity exists in accelerating investment in the energy storage value chain.

Electricity’s share of how the world consumes energy has doubled from 10% to 20% between 1980 and today and is set to grow to 45% by 2050. And of course, a large share of this growing electricity demand will be met by renewable energy sources.

The above factors will combine to drive up storage demand as many renewable sources of power require energy to be stored and used in periods when generation is not possible (think solar and wind for example).

According to Bloomberg NEF, stationary energy storage deployments are set to grow 122 times over the next 20 years from a cumulative 17GWh in 2018 to >2,850 GWh by 2040.

The growing energy storage market presents a unique opportunity for South Africa’s mining and manufacturing industry. South Africa has no shortage of some of the world’s largest and highest-grade resources in key metals such as vanadium, platinum group metals, nickel, manganese, copper and cobalt.

All these metals have a demand profile that is anchored in a decades-old, if not century old applications in the steel industry, but also, more excitingly they are now in use in newer applications in electronics and batteries.

Here then is an opportunity to turn what is often dubbed a sunset industry into a sunrise industry.

Simply put, the potential for battery metals, such as vanadium, which Bushveld Minerals produces, lies in their ability to solve seemingly simple challenges for global economies, such as ensuring that electricity is made available sustainably and on demand, whether generated by solar or wind or fossil fuels.

To be clear, the opportunity is distinct from the past. Where historically the industry in South Africa has been content with mining and shipping ore to other markets for processing, it is time to develop vertically integrated opportunities that maximise South Africa’s share of the value chain.

It is a big enough opportunity to require a master plan and a strategy to capture as much of the value chain as possible. What’s more, South Africa already has the metallurgical infrastructure that can be leveraged to create or expand the downstream capabilities required. Not only infrastructure, but also metallurgical expertise and Research and Development platforms that to date have been under-utilised.

Gone are the days when it could be argued that China’s electricity costs and labour costs are significantly lower than South Africa’s and thus give China a competitive advantage for developing a downstream jobs-intensive processing industry.

Furthermore, the downstream beneficiation required along the battery value chain is not as capital intensive as the “mid-stream” core-processing that has been China’s main domain over the past several decades. 

To achieve this reality, all stakeholders in business, government and research institutions must take responsibility for their role in ensuring that certain key actions are prioritised as the implementation of the recovery plan takes centre stage.

There must be an acceleration of and support for research and innovation that helps develop the opportunities in the value chain, investment in the building and revitalisation of processing infrastructure and metallurgical expertise, growing local mining and processing capacity to meet the increase in demand for these metals.

An example could be prioritising deployment of select technologies that rely on greater amounts of minerals and components made in South Africa. The success of such technologies globally would mean increased export opportunities for South Africa.

South Africa’s ability to turn the mineral wealth in the soil into a fully charged and sustainable new industry, such as the energy storage sector, is what must energise us.

Fortune Mojapelo is CEO of Bushveld Minerals.