Opinionista Richard Halsey 20 October 2017

To build an equitable energy future we need to put differences aside

Co-operation is key for a sustainable and equitable energy future. Therefore, we need to put our differences aside and agree on a common goal.

We, the naked apes, were never the fastest, strongest or toughest creatures. While brain power played a significant role, it was our ability to co-operate that kept us alive and allowed us to progress. From bringing down a woolly mammoth to landing a man on the moon, the ability to work together towards a common goal was critical. Given the numerous social, economic and environmental challenges we face today, the role of co-operation cannot be overstated. The hardest part to embarking on a joint venture can often be agreeing on a common goal and setting aside differences.

The Just Energy Transition

Putting this into a specific context, the way we produce energy is changing. It is not just for climate change, pollution and human health reasons that there is a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy (RE). Economics has become a key driver. Renewables are now in many cases cheaper than coal and gas for producing electricity. As the costs of technology to harness the free natural resources of wind and sun further reduce, the shift to RE will speed up. As coal and gas reserves become more expensive to extract, the job shedding trend of these sectors will continue. It is on this stage of shifting energy generation sources that we will need to co-operate. While the transition to low carbon sources is better for society and the environment at large, there are workers in the legacy system that will be affected. Unlike other consumer goods, energy is a basic service, and underpins many of the basic human rights in our Constitution. So we are obligated to make this transition as just and fair as possible. Hence the term a Just Energy Transition (JET).

The role of ownership

To hone in further, within the framework of this JET, the role of ownership is both important and contested. Ownership in the energy sector can apply across many parts of the value chain: from resources and infrastructure to service industries and retailers. Big corporations dominate the coal mining, oil and gas sectors, while Eskom has a monopoly in the electricity sector. However, part of the transition to RE will be fundamental deviations from the current status quo of ownership. First, no one owns the wind or the sun, so the resource itself is effectively shared by everyone. Second, infrastructure to harness renewable sources are often distributed and decentralised – so this allows for many players to be involved and a movement away from monopolies. Third, the scale of RE facilities can range from tiny residential units to enormous utility-scale power plants. This means that ownership can extend all the way to the individual, and offers ample opportunity for social ownership.

Navigating potential impasses through co-operation

A potential pitfall in this debate of who can and should have ownership in the new energy era is the polarising views on whether energy should be in public or private hands. As seen above, an RE-based system has far more options for ownership than just these two options, but they do remain as prevailing ideologies among stakeholders. Trade unions are often in favour of public or social ownership of utilities, while industry players are associated with, and benefit from, privatisation. However, this is exactly what we need to avoid. A stand-off of public versus private ownership in the energy space is not going to move us forward. Indeed, it is going to be very difficult to have positive change towards a better energy system when stakeholders remain married to a particular ownership model.

The beauty of RE-based systems is it offers opportunities for many different models of ownership and hybrid ownership structures we do not have yet in South Africa. There is space for all players, but it all comes back to co-operation between these players.

Bringing people together

Project 90 by 2030 and the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office recently held a round table discussion on ownership within a JET. Representatives from civil society, trade unions and the RE industry broadly agreed that the goal is to move towards an energy system that is better for people and the planet. However, this must happen via a JET, and government must urgently give attention to this. Ownership is a tricky issue, there is no denying that. Much of this is because ownership extends beyond mere possession, it allows for control over decision-making and the receiving of financial and other benefits. So despite a common goal, civil society, the trade unions and the RE industry need to put aside differences and identify what can be taken forward together. It was suggested that, “We need something innovative and forward-looking as a rallying point or common ground that is not constrained by areas of current disagreement and positioning.”

Co-operation does not need to be all-encompassing. For a start, stakeholders can pick a few achievable items to get the ball rolling. Information is a smart place to begin. Good data is needed for good decisions, which lead to good outcomes. At the round table, representatives from civil society, trade unions and the RE industry agreed to share relevant information and talk to each other further about what they each need from the other to continue work on a JET. This is a great starting point for co-operation on an important issue, and hopefully government will come to the party in the same spirit.

Pooling efforts on contemporary issues

Recently the independent power producers (IPPs), which have been adding RE capacity to our national energy system, diversifying our energy mix, providing jobs and community benefits, have come under fire. Some of this is fuelled by Eskom in an attempt to protect its vested interests in coal and ambitions for nuclear power. Workers in the coal sector view them as a threat to job security. Another factor is how privatisation and the contribution of international developers are viewed. It is a complex situation. However, the nature of IPPs is not fixed in stone or concrete or anything else immovable. IPPs as a concept are simply producers of power that are not part of a vertically integrated monopoly. The proportional allocation of ownership, the contribution towards local communities, transfer of skills programmes, the role of private companies and many other factors can be changed. It is this process of learning from the programme to date and making it better that requires co-operation from the interested and affected parties. By co-designing and co-developing aspects of an improved IPP programme, this will give a tangible joint outcome that can be given to government.

To mitigate against further conflict in light of imminent changes in the energy sector, we really do need a plan for a JET. This must outline how we get the energy future we want as a nation, while looking after those that are affected along the way. This is a difficult task, but it is achievable, and there are examples from other countries we can learn from. An immediate area of co-operation is for all stakeholders to impress upon government how important and urgent this plan is. Our energy future is far too important to be left to chance or corporate chess.

Human history has shown that by working together, great things can be achieved, and formidable challenges can be overcome. In South Africa, we have an urgent challenge ahead of us to move towards a sustainable and equitable energy system. We have the resources and we have the people, but we will need to put aside our differences and work together to build the energy future we need. DM

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