Opinionista Richard Worthington 2 February 2018

‘Utterly redundant’ electricity supply plan finds favour

Why is the Minister of Environmental Affairs, ostensibly the lead agent on implementing climate change mitigation, championing fossil fuels? One might hope that having the Minister of Environmental Affairs and lead agent on climate change at the head of the oceans-economy initiative would serve to temper enthusiasm for expanding our fossil fuel industries, but such hopes are utterly dashed by Edna Molewa’s latest decision.

On 30 January Minister Edna Molewa issued a decision approving a new coal-fired power plant that would, according to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), increase our greenhouse gas emissions by 9.9 Mega-tonnes CO2e per annum. This equals 4% of our national greenhouse gas emissions. While the electricity supply sector accounts for about 45% of total emissions, recent profound shifts in technology costs mean that emissions reduction in this sector has become a cost-negative opportunity, as illustrated in research by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and by other institutions.

Minister Molewa is also the leader of the Ocean’s Phakisa – the first project under Operation Phakisa, a Presidential initiative modelled on a Malaysian programme for accelerating economic activity – sometimes referred to as the “blue” or oceans-economy programme. It is a vehicle for state support and international finance for exploration for and extraction of fossil fuels in SA territorial waters, as well as for the development of ports, shipping and aquaculture (fish-farming) initiatives. Championing the expansion of South Africa’s fossil fuel asset base has thus been occupying a significant portion of the minister’s time and effort.

One might hope that having the Minister of Environmental Affairs and lead agent on climate change at the head of the oceans-economy initiative would serve to temper enthusiasm for expanding our fossil fuel industries, but such hopes are utterly dashed by Molewa’s latest decision. The proposed Thabametsi plant is assessed as more polluting than Eskom’s coal-fired plants, with an emissions intensity factor 17% higher than the existing Eskom fleet average.

A civil society appeal and subsequent review of the initial EIA decision that approved the Thabametsi plant a few years ago has provided a robust foundation – supported by a High Court decision – for this project to be turned down. Our current context could not be more conducive to a decision against another coal-fired power station, even if it were expected to provide electricity at a lower cost than other options. In fact the project would produce electricity at least 20% more expensive than recent wind and solar-PV projects, and that is without counting the externalised costs of coal mining and combustion.

The state-owned utility is already opposing electricity generation capacity contracts (under the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme), in defiance of government policy and fiduciary commitments, on the basis that it has excess generation capacity of at least 4,000 MW. The independent power producer proposing the 1,200 MW Thabametsi plant requires a commitment to buy electricity at a price well above that agreed in most of the contracts that Eskom is opposing.

Minister Molewa’s latest decision is based on a Climate Change Impact Assessment (CCIA) ordered by the High Court, in addressing a legal challenge to rejection of an appeal by Earthlife Africa against the initial EIA decision approving the project. The only justification offered by Molewa for accepting what the CCIA found to be “high social costs”, primarily associated with “very high GHG emissions levels”, is that new coal-fired power plants were provided for in the IRP2010 – the Integrated Resource Plan for electricity supply developed by the Department of Energy and premised on the national context of 10 years ago. In fact the national energy data used for the IRP2010 process were the official statistics for 2006.

Total national electricity use has been declining (slightly) for a full decade, such that demand is now about one-third less than anticipated in the IRP2010. Extensive research published from 2014 to 2016, in which the Department of Environmental Affairs participated, has established that both the quantity and the quality of South Africa’s renewable energy resources are far greater than had previously been understood. Work by the CSIR – a government agency – and supported by international review, has demonstrated that there is no longer any public economic benefit or technical rationale for any new coal-fired power plants in South Africa. The World Bank has come to a similar conclusion at the global level.

The Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) (www.aidc.org.za) was optimistic that the era of pandering to BEE operators in the coal industry was coming to an end. Why then has Minister Molewa rejected all arguments against the Thabametsi plant and given it her blessing?

The AIDC regards the latest decision to be a disgraceful dereliction of her duties as Minister of Environmental Affairs, as is highlighted by her appeal decision including no attempt to justify the high and un-mitigatable impacts and social costs of the project beyond reference to an utterly redundant old electricity supply plan. DM

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