Opinionista Richard Worthington 24 November 2017

Opinionista: Richard Worthington An ‘Indaba’ about energy endowment? Mahlobo is not the first Minister of Energy to resort to “endowment” as code for mineral energy resources, or concentrated energy resources that are easily appropriated, when insisting

David Mahlobo is not the first Minister of Energy to resort to “endowment” as code for mineral energy resources, or concentrated energy resources that are easily appropriated, when insisting that they must be used. Some have more explicitly invoked the belief that our minerals resources were endowed by God and thus come with a divine licence for burning them.

Parliament’s website has only 511 words to offer on the much-anticipated appearance of the new Energy Minister (ex of State Security) at the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Tuesday. From informal reports, this is no reflection on the reporter, but consistent with the substance to be found in his input.

No documentation or new information was provided and, apart from saying that his officials really will hurry up now, Minister Mahlobo’s over-all message is that nothing is changing. According to the parliamentary reporter: “…Mahlobo, has told the Portfolio Committee on Energy that South Africa’s energy policy has not changed and will never change.”

After last month’s provoking dismay with talk of “fast-tracking” the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) – essentially the new build plan for grid-connected electricity generation – it turns out the new minister’s commitment is to have a final report tabled for Cabinet consideration by the end of the year, which is the minimum already required, in order to get approval for tabling in Parliament in February, as per the commitment of the previous minister.

A brief report in Engineering News notes: “He also says he is planning an energy indaba for early next month.” While we can at least be confident he will still be the Energy Minister in a few weeks, what would this gathering discuss? Who will be invited and why would they make the time at short notice?

There is no prospect of either the IRP, nor the Integrated Energy Plan (IEP) addressing all energy supply and use (ostensibly the document that provides the basis for the electricity plan), getting approved by Cabinet for release into the public domain this year. We are not even allowed to see the revisions that have been made to assumptions and input data without the approval of the Executive.

There have over recent years been many calls for an energy summit for science-based and multi-stakeholder deliberation of the options and strategic choices we face in energy development, but the minister’s utterances do not suggest this is what he has in mind: “Energy is about what you have as an endowment, and the policy works on that basis,” Mahlobo told Parliament. He did not even disclose whether the caps that were placed on renewable energy in the draft IRP, restrictions on the use of solar and wind resources that almost all stakeholders objected to, were being retained in the plan.

Mahlobo is not the first Minister of Energy to resort to “endowment” as code for mineral energy resources, or concentrated energy resources that are easily appropriated, when insisting that they must be used. Some have more explicitly invoked the belief that our minerals resources were endowed by God and thus come with a divine licence for burning them; while notably not granting such status to renewable resources, which are cast as in the capricious domain of nature.

We are blessed with uranium that could be extracted…” he tells us, and he’s not talking about taking it out of the acid mine drainage and the polluted agricultural land onto which that continues to decant. However, his attention is clearly directed downward, through his vague reference to “the energy mix policy”, on what can be taken from the ground. Perhaps he wants an Indaba to reassert the dominance of the minerals energy complex (MEC)?

Invoking some unspecified “energy mix” has become commonplace in government’s evasion of the key choices South Africa faces for ensuring that we have energy — the prime ingredient of economic activity, however much this is mediated by the financial sector. Not just “keeping the lights on” Eskom-style, but actually ensuring that our children and theirs have a sustainable energy system that provides net benefit to all of our society. This requires making some pivotal strategic choices as soon as possible.

The parliamentary report notes the minister “called on the opponents of nuclear energy not to be champions of one energy source over the other ones”. Why not? When the weight of evidence is that some sources have enormous negative impact and others do not, the people are entitled to champion the sources they understand to be best for purpose. We don’t even need to invoke the precautionary principle to reject the state making us dependent on the nuclear industry, or its financiers, and the latter can be achieved through a procurement commitment even if the plants are never completed.

If the Department of Energy is to convene a summit or indaba that is about energy, this can’t be limited by prescribing some vague “mix policy” and telling the people not to champion the development pathway that offers the most affordable and democratic energy system.

The narrative of the energy incumbency – the current system that is demonstrably not providing net value to society under holistic analysis – has taken up the idea of diversity to try and extend the social licence that comes with path dependence. This is used to suggest that clear prioritisation on the basis of evidence should not extend to identifying the types of energy that are most desirable – that this is somehow unfair discrimination.

As the state’s own Council for Scientific and Industrial Research has reported over the course of the last two years, in internationally accredited research and in great detail: we have all the diversity we need in the range of renewable resources (solar, wind, biomass, ocean/wave and some hydro-power), with which our proud nation is so abundantly provided by our ecosystem – “blessed” is more what the fossil fuel industries have been, and done.

A key challenge remains how to direct investment into renewable energy development when far greater value accrues from this to the lower levels of society, and offers the best options and opportunities for the poor majority, while concentrated energy sources yield quicker and bigger profits, at least for as long as we fail to implement the polluter pays policy.

An energy Indaba to discuss how best the state could address this challenge would certainly be welcome. In the meantime, maybe the minister could at least stop the attrition being caused in nascent renewable energy manufacturing by getting the overdue power purchase agreements signed “as soon as possible”. All it requires is a decision to implement that policy that has not changed. DM


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