THE GATHERING 2022
A just transition is the only solution to South Africa’s energy crisis, says Andre de Ruyter
A panel addressing the country’s energy security crisis kicked off Daily Maverick’s flagship event, The Gathering, where the Eskom CEO clearly stated that the just transition was the only solution to South Africa’s crisis, adding that it also offers a boost to the economy and addresses environmental concerns.
‘In my mind, the opportunity is tangible; I can see no other opportunity to drive economic growth, to solve for energy security, to solve our environmental problems, to create employment, than by embarking on this just energy transition. If we don’t do this, what else? I don’t know. If we don’t do this then we would have lost an opportunity,” Eskom group CEO André de Ruyter said at the Daily Maverick’s flagship event, The Gathering, at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on Thursday morning.
He made the remarks during a panel discussion hosted by journalist and consultant Karen Allen and joined by Zanele Mbatha, CEO of Bambili Energy, which focuses on hydrogen and clean fuel generation, as well as Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet journalist Ethan van Diemen.
The panel, “Energy; Beyond Eskom”, kicked off the event, answering questions such as how to address the elongated bouts of rolling blackouts and what those solutions are, as well as delving into renewable energy sources.
“When a technology has reached the end of its life, it doesn’t make sense to continue to perpetuate it; the Stone Age didn’t end because of a lack of stones!” said De Ruyter to a laughing and clapping crowd in an auditorium filled to near capacity. “I don’t think that the fact that we have coal means that we should continue to burn coal… that’s a fallacy.”
The comments come as South Africa faces its longest bouts of rolling blackouts in a year. The situation has been worsened by Eskom’s depletion of its diesel budget, pushing load shedding to Stage 5 on Sunday. Although 50 million litres of diesel have been allocated to the power utility from PetroSA to buffer against heightened blackouts.
At the recent global climate negotiations, the 27th Congress of the Parties (COP27), South Africa’s Just Energy Transition Investment Plan shone brightly as a competitive blueprint for how developing countries can transition from coal dependency towards cleaner energy sources such as renewables.
The plan seeks to decarbonise South Africa through the electricity sector, the development of electric vehicles and expanding the country’s green hydrogen sector. Implementation of the plan requires R1.5-trillion over the next five years.
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“If you look at our comparative advantage with renewable resources, our worst solar resources are better than the best resources in Germany. Our wind resources are among the best in the world,” De Ruyter said. “The one big thing about sun and wind is that it cannot be stolen, first of all. And secondly, it cannot be exported to China to be beneficiated there.”
‘Blessed with sunshine’
Mbatha, of Bambili Energy, said that as the country transitions it should be all about an energy mix that incorporates renewable energy but does not leave the grid behind.
“The reality is that some of the technologies we are talking about are rather expensive and when we speak to customers it’s very clear that as much as they want to move towards renewables, the issue of cost is utmost on their mind,” said Mbatha.
“We need hydrogen because South Africa is blessed with incredible sunshine where we can make hydrogen at globally competitive rates that the exporting and domestic use of hydrogen will complement that energy mix that is required for the country.”
Mbatha added that a successful energy mix also requires a conversation about trust between the public and private sectors.
De Ruyter said that such conversations and action on the just transition needed to be done urgently, adding that there needed to be the removal of policy obstacles in order to achieve a transition that not only addressed energy security, but also the needs of the people most affected.
Van Diemen, who has just returned from the COP27 negotiations in Egypt, said there was a great disconnect between the high-level climate talks and those living in the mining towns and along the coal value chain where more than 120,000 jobs are threatened by a shift away from coal dependency.
“[Mine workers and those along the coal value chain] are more concerned about aspects of their livelihoods being secured than focusing on renewable energy, decarbonisation and energy security,” said Van Diemen.
He added that while the plans to move away from coal have been laid and the right people put in the right places to carry that out, the implementation blueprint is lacking.
“At various levels, we have the right leadership in the main, but where we seem to be faltering is in terms of implementation; taking these plans and the leadership that we have and driving [the just transition] forward in a very tangible way… and there certainly needs to be more accountability in that respect.”
Indeed, plans have been extensive to ensure South Africa’s just transition and to attract funding in order to carry out that plan. In 2021, South Africa secured $8.5-billion in funding towards its plans to decarbonise, some of which is being used towards decommissioning Komati Power Station, as well as reskilling and upskilling workers to equip them with renewable energy skills.
De Ruyter said Eskom is also replicating solar and wind training facilities at Komati, for which they received R48-million in grant funding from the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet. The utility had also received €10-million from Germany investment institution KFW to develop a similar facility at Grootvlei Power Station, which is the next to retire.
“We’ve got to weigh up the greater good and rapidly remove obstacles that will enable us to remove the bigger problem, which is energy security.” DM/OBP