OP-ED

A just transition to renewable energy begins at local level

By Dirk De Vos 2 March 2020

The Jeffreys Bay Wind Farm. (EPA / Nic Bothma)

There is no blueprint for securing a ‘just transition’ from fossil-fuel generated electricity to renewables. But the mere process of making that transition will have innumerable spin-offs that will be part of a long-term just transition for all South Africans.

The ongoing problem we have had with the term “just energy transition” is that only one word – “energy” – of the three has a settled meaning, and in the term, it serves merely as the second adjective.

Nevertheless, it’s a term that has come into greater use often as a slogan or as a cover for a number of different agendas, and often by those seeking to derail the energy transition or to prop up the energy systems we have inherited from our past.

Let’s look at the energy transition itself. The transition from a fossil-fuel-based energy system to a cleaner system based on renewable energy was prompted by growing concerns about air pollution but, more recently, the alarming rise in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Governments, particularly in the developed world, responded by heavily subsidising renewable energy technologies and taxing or putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions.

At the outset, renewables were an expensive way to generate electricity, but their scaling up saw massive falls in their price. In the last five years, many different tipping points have been reached. First, the price of electricity renewables fell below the selling price of electricity, then they became cheaper, then new renewable energy plants became cheaper than every alternative new energy generating capacity and it is now becoming cheaper to build new renewable plants and get electricity from them than it is to run old fossil-fuelled generating plants.

The energy transition, at least as far as electricity is concerned, is inevitable even if it is unclear how it will play out. The Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for future electricity procurement, now adopted by the government, is an energy transition charter. Almost all new capacity will be provided via new renewable energy. An energy transition is therefore now official government policy.

It is important to note that environmental considerations or carbon dioxide emissions had nothing to do with the IRP’s outcome. What’s more, in every future iteration of the IRP, the case for renewables gets stronger as they become cheaper and the technical hurdles are solved.

The debates on climate change and how we should respond can be focused on the transport sector and large industrial processes which still have to rely on fossil fuels. In electricity generation, it doesn’t matter what you believe about global warming; generating electricity by way of as much renewables as possible is the cheapest available option.

As an aside, ever-cheaper renewables will play a big role in decarbonising transport as more transport becomes electrified and as batteries improve. What then remains in transport (air travel) and in industrial processes requiring heat becomes solved by the greater use of hydrogen (green or blue) energy also produced by cheap electricity, produced in turn by renewable sources.

While everyone will be better off as renewables take over the task of generating electricity, there will be relative winners and relative losers. The price at which a renewable power plant can supply electricity is a function of two things: the cost of capital used in building renewable power plants; and environmental factors, which are primarily about the amount of sun and the consistency of the wind, but also the size of a country or its interconnected transmission grid. In a big country, there are cloudless skies somewhere and the wind is always blowing in some place. This means you can smooth out the effect of variability in sun and wind in any one small area without over-investing in storage.

As luck would have it, South Africa, a big sunny country, with excellent wind resources, should be one of the relative winners in the transition. It just comes down to choosing to be a winner.

So much for the “pull” factors which are strong enough on their own. South Africa has been building up powerful “push” factors as well. These push factors are the fact that our national electricity utility, Eskom, has been running down its own capital stock for some time and its efforts to build new generation capacity – notably, the Medupi and Kusile megaprojects – have been epic failures: over budget, over deadline and they still don’t work.

In this respect, South Africa is like someone who inherits an old car from Dad. It has more than 300,000km on the odometer, the service books are nowhere to be seen, it creaks, it smokes and it makes all sorts of alarming sounds, but it still goes. You know it’s been driven hard, too hard, but Dad loved it, so you try love it too.

But it is getting harder. The old car keeps breaking down, but you don’t know what’s wrong with it – there seems to be a new problem every time. The garage you take it to returns it to you with sketchy comments that they think they have fixed the problem, only for the problem (or is it a different one?) to return. You start looking for assurances, the garage says it’s still a great car and has another 100,000km ahead of it. You want to believe them but, in your head, you know it’s not true. It is going to have to be scrapped at some point. It is too unreliable and too expensive to keep on the road.

One of the most extraordinary things about Eskom is that despite our utter dependence on the monopoly provider, we know very little about the state of its generating plant. We pick up a little from anodyne announcements about the reasons for load shedding, via terms like scheduled and unscheduled maintenance and a little via documents such as the Dentons’ Report that make it into the public domain. What we do know is that around 2014 and 2015, energy expert Mike Rossouw was commissioned and produced comprehensive reports on the state of Eskom’s old plant. As a start, Eskom should make those reports publicly available so we know what we are in for.

The purpose of this is not to get involved in the issue of what Eskom has done about the state of its generating plant since 2014/5 – it is principally about what we should do about it now. As with any other old machine (especially ones that have suffered abuse), it is what can be kept going via a careful maintenance regime and what needs to be refurbished (assuming one can find the parts). Refurbishment means a rebuild. Sometimes, there is no choice but to do a refurbishment, but if refurbishment and the remainder of the machine’s life after refurbishment have a greater cost than an available option – like renewables – it may be better to consider decommissioning the old plant immediately.

So, what of the shape or processes of the energy transition and can they be “just”? Justice here is a tricky thing to describe. One could simply say that replacing coal-fired power plants with renewables is “just” on its own because the pollution of the air, soils and water is literally killing us. Making the transition gives expression to the Bill of Rights including Section 11, the right to life; Section 24(a), the right to an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being; and, indirectly a clean and healthy environment secures with it Section 27(1)(b), the right to sufficient food and water; and as healthier people need less healthcare, access to healthcare facilities – Section 27(1)(a) – also improves.

Transitioning to renewables at the rate that needs to be done in terms of the IRP, and more so if there are to be early Eskom retirements, requires that we build more than 3,000MW of capacity every year – and never stop. At the end of 20 years, we will still be building and then replacing the first power plants built at the beginning of the cycle. Job creation here far exceeds the jobs our current system provides to miners, coal truckers and power station workers.

There are good reasons to give special attention to workers directly affected, but in so doing, we need to ask ourselves whether we, as a society, gave enough attention to a just transition out of gold mining or the transition out of clothing and textiles and, indeed, whether we are sufficiently aware that the emergence of online shopping means that we should also provide for a just retail transition, and so on.

Still, for the energy transition to be just, the notion that it must be harnessed to a comprehensive developmental agenda that also addresses job losses from the end of fossil fuels is settled wisdom. Quite what that developmental agenda might be and how it may be taken forward is far from clear. As you read this, a lekgotla/indaba/conference somewhere in this country addressing just this issue is either being arranged or already underway. Despite all the conference papers, all the PowerPoint presentations and all the workshopping, the representatives of the supposed “social partners” have not come up with anything like a consensus.

The now apparently revived Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) had a well-developed developmental agenda component which counted for as much as 30% of the score that bidding projects were able to achieve (70% was accounted for in the tariff bid). Through complicated formulas and weightings across a range of developmental topics, from localisation and jobs created, to local enterprise and social development, a single scoring number could be derived.

As expected, there is a debate (sometimes useful, often not) about how effective the REIPPPP’s version of a developmental agenda has been. A fair assessment would be lots of problems, some unintended consequences, and incapacity on the part of the state, but probably better than most other private sector efforts. It also managed to keep local governments out of the flow of funds. And, besides, nobody has provided another plan which is obviously better.

Securing an outcome that is just and/or has a sound developmental agenda is, of course, impossible because, like beauty, what they are is in the eye of the beholder and there are millions of us. What a suitable developmental agenda might be depends on where and when that agenda plays out. A community in the sparsely populated rural Northern Cape would have a completely different agenda to one living in, say, Motherwell outside Port Elizabeth.

Just outcomes and development agendas cannot be delivered from above. They also have to be grasped by the communities they are meant for.

The truth is that the energy transition cannot guarantee an outcome other than a cleaner environment with the cheapest possible electricity. However, the nature of renewables suggests that it can do a good deal more.

Our present system is centralised and hierarchical – a few large generators mostly located close to each other, feeding the transmission grid. Renewable power plants are much, much smaller, work best in a decentralised, less hierarchical fashion and can be built wherever there is a grid connection or even as a stand-alone facility serving a local micro/mini-grid. The very technical topography of a renewable energy system lends itself to an outcome that is more just: how the energy transition might deliver on development to align it with how renewable energy delivers electricity to the grid – in a decentralised and local fashion.

One way of grasping the opportunity and moving forward is to bring the IRP down to the level of communities around the country. This could be done by getting Eskom Transmission (SOC Ltd?) to produce an interactive transmission grid map (mobile friendly) that provides for possible connection points and how these might develop in, say, a series of five-year phases. On an annual basis, the map could be updated, and certainly after every subsequent IRP. Perhaps later, larger municipal distributors could bring their own distribution grids into the picture.

Now, an interactive map is not going to solve the numerous issues of how best to procure electricity, the role of the private sector, the funding mechanisms and many more issues, but having a map like this that shows the closest connection point to where you live or work starts to make the energy transition, which is happening anyway, more tangible, more real for those outside the energy sector. By being local, it allows proper discussion and dispute about how to achieve an energy transition that is just at the local level. Perhaps it might put pressure on our politicians to cease the endless workshopping and stakeholder engagements and start to deliver on the potential.

Needless to say, there are downsides, including that local strongmen get full notice of the opportunities and secure them for their own benefit, but it also weakens the hand of those who seek to hold up the now inevitable march towards a cleaner and more environmentally sustainable energy future.

We should do all we can to make the energy transition just, but it is impossible to impose a blueprint on how this can be guaranteed. The hard work of making our society a more just society cannot be realised via the energy transition. 

One can be sure that those who seek to prevent the energy transition from progressing on the grounds of it not being just, are simply defending narrow interests at the cost of the rest of society. DM

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