OUR BURNING PLANET

Eskom’s coal dependence is strangling SA’s transition to a greener future, says Greenpeace

By Tessa Knight 12 June 2019
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Photo: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

As more countries begin moving towards environmentally friendly power options, Greenpeace Africa has tasked South Africa’s power utility with implementing a ‘Just Transition’ away from coal and towards a green future.

South Africa and Eskom are lagging behind in the global move towards renewable energy sources, according to environmental activist group Greenpeace. Amidst the resignation of Eskom CEO Phakamani Hadebe and the power utility’s reliance on state bailouts to cover its R500-billion debt, it also has to focus on bringing South Africa’s energy sector into a green future.

A report commissioned by Greenpeace Africa and written by Energy Economist Prof Dr Uwe Leprich entitled Eskom: A Roadmap to Powering the Future, highlights the power utility’s need for urgent transformation.

Eskoms reform is almost laughably overdue; the utility is technically insolvent, inefficient, unable to guarantee security of supply, wildly unprepared for an energy transition to renewable energy and is the countrys biggest emitter of toxic pollutants and greenhouse gases, which are driving us towards a climate and pollution emergency,” said Happy Khambule, Greenpeace Africas senior political adviser.

The report, which outlines multiple steps the struggling power utility should take, focuses on two key issues: the total phasing out of coal by 2040, accompanied by what Greenpeace calls a Just Transition. According to a statement issued by the organisation, a Just Transition requires communications with and prioritisation of the well-being of people who live and work in coal regions.

Eskom needs to morph from an energy generation company, to an energy transmission company, energy analyst and managing director of EE Publishers Chris Yelland told Daily Maverick. Yelland and Greenpeace both emphasised that Eskom should not have a monopoly on energy generation, with the report highlighting that the refinancing of the debt-ridden utility should be conducted through the sale of all remaining coal-fired power stations.

As a transmission company, Eskom would “provide a platform for energy to be bought from a number of different generating companies in a competitive environment based on economic principles”, said Yelland.

Employment in mining regions had been on the decline for the last decade, he said. “These areas have good infrastructure, schools, communities, clinics and roads, they are ideal for re-industrialisation into new industries,” said Yelland. “We have to recognise the important role that these communities played in the previous development of South Africa. We have to make sure that we don’t neglect them and allow them to decline because then they become festering wounds.”

For a Just Transition to take place, South Africa itself needs to move away from its dependence on coal. In the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Energy Transition Index, South Africa ranked 114th out of 115 countries, beaten by Haiti for the last spot on the list. In 2018, South Africa ranked 113 out of 114 indexed countries, placing the country in the second to last position for two years consecutively.

The index ranks countries’ ability to move towards a low-carbon, the environmentally friendly energy sector in which renewable energy is the primary source of energy production. Yelland believes the country’s poor ranking in the Energy Transition Index is due to South Africa’s dependence on Eskom, and Eskom’s dependence on coal. According to Greenpeace’s report, Eskoms coal-fired power plants are responsible for about 30% of South Africa’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, the new administration needs to prove their credibility and that their pre-electoral promises about the reform of Eskom and the electricity sector were not merely cheap electioneering tactics. The decisions that need to be taken about Eskom’s future will not be easy, but it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that a bold shift to renewable energies, with Eskom as a public good at the centre, becomes a reality,” said Khambule.

With Eskom in financial, operational and environmental ruin, our future is not sustainable,” Yelland said.

On Tuesday, 11 June 2019, Daily Maverick asked Eskom to respond to Greenpeace’s report. It said that the company had “not had an opportunity to review the specific report” but that it “has been engaging with diverse stakeholders on climate change issues for many years”. DM

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