Eskom’s on-going scapegoating of renewable energy as the reason behind its financial woes shows a lack of vision, particularly in the light of the urgent need to develop new jobs beyond the coal industry.
Instead, the utility should be leading the country into a greener, more equitable energy future which will help South Africa both create new, cleaner jobs and meet its international obligations to the Paris agreement, which is aimed at urgently limiting the most damaging aspects of climate change.
The transition of jobs from the coal industry has long been a critical area due to increasing levels of automation while the closure of ageing coal stations has been on the cards for years.
This week, in her report to the parliamentary portfolio committee, Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Browne once again cited cost as one of the reasons for Eskom’s reluctance to sign renewable energy agreements with independent power producers. However, she failed to sketch the bigger picture surrounding the decreasing price of renewable energy versus the rising environmental cost of coal.
These hidden costs are paid in human health, water pollution and long-term climate change – and more often than not the poorest in the country are most impacted by air pollution and will be hardest hit by climate change.
The government also has an important role to play in ensuring that the transition to a low carbon economy is equitable by assisting in skills development for the renewable industry and mandating that coal mines and plants have an end-of-life policy that ensures that such training is available for their workers.
In terms of their agreements, the independent power producers (IPPs) are required to provide jobs and to share ownership with local communities, compared to the coal mines and power stations where no such requirement exists. As a consequence the IPPs have provided far better socio-economic development gains than the coal industry.
In another argument, Eskom has blamed renewable energy for creating excess capacity with consequent job losses in the coal trucking sector. The truth is that renewables at best currently make up only around 4% of the total energy mix – and the vast majority of our energy still comes from coal, with new coal stations adding to this capacity. Rather, the utility currently faces a cash flow crisis and needs to claw back losses due to mismanagement detailed in the Denton Report.
Finally, the Hendrina, Kriel, Komati, Grootvlei and Camden coal stations, which are set to close, are among the oldest, thirstiest, dirtiest and most costly of South Africa’s coal power stations. (Camden and Grootvlei were previously mothballed and then revived to deal with the 2008 electricity crisis). As aging coal plants reach retirement age, the most cost-effective replacement would be renewable energy.....