Our Burning Planet


Rolling blackouts and the necessity of a just energy transition — the facts and the fiction

Rolling blackouts and the necessity of a just energy transition — the facts and the fiction
From left: Wind turbines. (Photo: Angel Garcia / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Vapour from cooling towers of the Eskom Matla coal-fired power station in Mpumalanga, South Africa. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | A worker handles a sample of coal. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Yes, Germany is ready to support South Africa’s just energy transition. And we have already started doing so by providing significant grants and a promotional loan to the South African Treasury of €300-million, more than R5.6-billion.

When I scroll down the Twitter timeline or flip through newspapers, I sometimes encounter two strange lines of thought. One, the West has supposedly tricked South Africa into an energy transition. Two, Germany is allegedly stealing coal from Mzansi. Both are really strange. And both are wrong.

The energy mix, i.e. which sources to use to produce electricity, is the sovereign choice of any country. Even inside the European Union, different member states made different choices. France, for instance, still prioritises nuclear energy, whereas Germany is about to close down its last nuclear power plants.

South Africa, too, had to make its own sovereign choice. And it chose to commit to ambitious climate goals. To reduce its carbon emissions by embarking on a transition towards a more modern and greener energy production. And to do so in a socially just way, leaving nobody behind. It is called JET — Just Energy Transition.

To achieve this goal and to complement its national efforts, South Africa entered into a cooperation agreement with international partners, among them Germany. It seemed logical to call it JET-P — Just Energy Transition Partnership.

Yes, we are ready to support the just energy transition. And we have already started doing so by providing significant grants and a promotional loan to the South African Treasury of €300-million, over R5.6-billion. France did the same. Other partners like the EU, the UK, the US, and in fact many more, are committing to similar steps of cooperation.

One important point to note is that this is a South African choice. Nobody pushes South Africa to exit coal, and even less, to do so immediately.

In Germany, we have been working on an energy transition for more than 20 years. Here, according to the plans of the SA government, it may take up until 2050. For a successful energy transition, we are in it for the long haul.

Transforming the energy supply, even the whole economy of a country into a climate-friendly, sustainable and green system is a task of a generation. It simply cannot be done overnight. Instead, it is a process that takes time and that has to be well planned and executed, taking into account all the opportunities, but also all the challenges that arise with it.

A successful energy transition, however, may also help to solve the ongoing energy crisis. The current level of rolling blackouts is a major burden for the people and the economy of this country.

And if we believe the experts, there is hardly a way to overcome the energy crisis in South Africa by relying solely on coal. At the moment, there is simply not enough energy available. Many coal power plants are said to be ageing and suffering from a lack of maintenance over many years. Quite a number will reach the end of their life cycles very soon. Replacing them is virtually impossible, because it would take too long and would be far too expensive.

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Thus, and this is again according to experts, one would need to bring in other sources of energy to bridge the power gap. Step by step, gradually, also working on modernising and refocussing the transmission system.

In Germany, we are currently producing 40% of our electricity using renewables, up from almost nothing 20 years ago. And we are looking at reaching 80% by 2030.

It is about creating as many energy generation capacities as quickly as possible. Coal is not suitable for this — renewables are. In South Africa, there is plenty of sun and wind. In fact, the conditions for renewables are much better than in Germany.

So, it seems natural to bring them into the energy mix on a large scale, creating new jobs, reducing carbon emissions to avoid a climate catastrophe, and also producing green hydrogen for energy supply. There were quite a number of fascinating prospects and a high level of interest by investors at the Green Hydrogen Summit, organised by the South African government in November 2022.

On the second point, yes, Germany, like many other countries, is importing coal from South Africa. But to be clear, we are buying, not stealing — in fact, at higher prices than before the international energy crisis unleashed by Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Luckily, South Africa has vast coal resources that cover not only its own needs but also enable it to supply other countries. The revenue from coal, as from other minerals, is an important source of income for the South African budget.

And, because Russia cut us off gas supplies last year, we even imported more coal from South Africa than before. But make no mistake, this is temporary. Germany has committed to exit coal-based power generation by 2030. By then, we will import little or no coal, from anybody.

Speaking of these topics, I cannot avoid talking about the small German settlement of Lützerath. It has been in the news all over, even in South Africa, with the opponents of an energy transition quickly pointing out that now even the Germans were destroying a village in order to mine more coal, whereas South Africa was asked to exit coal.

Just to set the record straight: the demolition of Lüzerath has caused and is still causing a big controversy in Germany itself. There have been a lot of protests and even Greta Thunberg came to voice her disagreement and was seen to be led away by police.

Many people ask: why should we demolish a settlement for coal, when we want to exit coal by 2030 anyway? But it is also true that the decision to demolish Lützerath was taken a long time ago and the first resettlements started in 2006, long before anybody started speaking about an energy transition in South Africa.

The town has now been abandoned for quite some time and is owned by the company that runs the coal mine. The decision was challenged in court and has been confirmed by the judiciary.

Politically, the demolition of the town was also confirmed as part of a compromise to accelerate the phasing out of coal mining in Germany, from 2038 to 2030. And in fact, by moving forward the exit, Germany will use 280 million tonnes of coal less than originally foreseen.

What the protests around Lützerath really show is the growing — and rightful — impatience of people in Germany in the face of the looming climate crisis. If we don’t act now, our planet may be lost for our children.

We have to fight climate change, otherwise extreme weather events like the 2022 floods in KwaZulu-Natal, or droughts in other parts of the country, may erode our very existence. One way to do this is by reducing carbon emissions and by implementing a successful energy transition. Let’s get started. DM

Andreas Peschke is the German Ambassador to South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini.

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