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Cabinet fiddles while coal (and diesel) burns

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Richard Worthington matriculated in Bloemfontein, got a BA degree at Wits in 1984, returned to South Africa in the mid-1990s and joined Earthlife Africa Johannesburg. He has since worked on energy and climate change issues in the NGO sector including serving WWF-SA for five years to 2013. He is currently a project manager at the South African office of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and writes in his personal capacity.

We desperately need innovation in modernising our electricity system – yet the new IRP, which has now gone to Cabinet, provides for 1 500MW of new coal-fired generation. Clinging to the past paradigm will only make the energy transition more costly and precarious.

The Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) – being the new-build plan for a grid-based electricity supply – has gone to Cabinet, having finally moved through Nedlac, where government has been implored to run this process more timeously henceforth. If Cabinet is okay with it, it will move on to Parliament. If not, who knows?

The lack of a credible IRP has become the basis of (or excuse for) further delays in the deployment of renewable energy technologies, even as we burn diesel while the wind blows. The procurement process for independent power producers – which almost all renewable capacity has been, to date – is also being challenged, but that’s no reason to block the development of renewable energy industries, as the IRP does with its constraints on the least-cost supply option.

It is fairly common cause that we really need to get a new IRP in place as a matter of urgency and immediately start work on the next, beginning with updated assumptions. Not that it would be difficult to improve the new build plan from a techno-economic perspective, using the information available, since it is already “policy-adjusted” and could in a single sitting be modified to better align with the challenges facing our electricity supply system, if Cabinet could agree.

A key barrier to getting agreement on a decisive shift towards renewable energy as our primary resource for electricity generation, is that it has become entirely associated with the introduction of independent power producers through a competitive bidding system. Unions call for socially owned renewables as the foundation for a just transition, as well as provisions that are already overdue to address the socio-economic impacts of closing coal mines, and with the Hendrina power plant already largely out of operation.

Social ownership is a relative thing – a concept that requires looking beyond our current one-way electricity system to the potential for energy democracy. Social ownership is perhaps less about the financing or company structure supporting/delivering electricity generation infrastructure than about the governance of the system. This is particularly true of “the wires”, which may be state-owned without any kind of ownership by the people at the end of the wires, where their participation in the system is determined by ability to pay.

We desperately need innovation in modernising our electricity system, and clinging defensively to the past paradigm in the face of change will only make the energy transition more costly and precarious. The ongoing under-performance of Eskom’s entire fleet – including the world’s two most expensive coal-fired power plants ever built (mostly built) – means that every day we delay using our widely available wind resource is money wasted on imported diesel for evening peak supply.

With this in mind, some argue that rather than asking Cabinet to agree on some simple adjustments, which even if possible may prompt further deliberation in Parliament, better to get the thing formally adopted and remove at least this barrier.

One provision that remains in this plan, particularly conspicuous with President Cyril Ramaphosa expected at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York in a couple of weeks, is the provision for 1 500MW of new coal-fired generation. Some key stakeholders are confident this will fall away in the next round of planning, which is supposed to be conducted on a two-year cycle. It is not just the dim prospects for the two private-sector projects that prompted this policy adjustment (away from the least-cost option), but declining investor appetite and escalating local pollution that is spreading scepticism that any new coal-fired plant will actually be built in South Africa.

It is unfortunate that the Minerals Council acts as if oblivious to the declining prospects for coal, both domestically and internationally, instead throwing its weight behind expansion even though this will increase costs for the rest of the mining sector. This is another manifestation of denial, though often expressed in illogical insistence that since we have coal we should burn it. The fact that keeping carbon and energy out of our heating atmosphere, sequestered often under productive land, provides a far greater service to humanity, continues to be trumped by short-term returns on extraction.

The Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, has defied convention in his determination to galvanise effective climate action globally by issuing explicit challenges, calling on heads of state to likewise step up and exercise decisive leadership. While developing countries have recently reiterated the case for the big historical emitters to do more, faster, and to support the mitigation efforts of others, the national circumstances of South Africa do make us stand out.

Trying to duck behind the volume of emissions (or ongoing projects) of nations with 20 times our population will not work in the UN General Assembly. South Africa remains a relatively affluent country by the aggregate measure of GDP per capita (despite this declining at present) that is recognised for high emissions intensity – per capita and unit of GDP. Our world-leading renewable energy resources and associated opportunities for low-carbon development are no secret, any more than the precarious state of our electricity supply system.

The South African establishment may not care to call on Cabinet to change the IRP, but the head of the UN has challenged the president to commit to no more coal-fired power plants, which is really not too much to ask, in itself. It is not as though the interests of coal workers and communities will be protected simply by planning to procure some new coal-fired power. Then there’s the politics, wherein calls for a Just Transition may be parlayed into defending business as usual, especially where mining of anything is involved.

The timing is not great for South Africa, or the president. An unprecedented Global Mobilisation and Climate Strike has been called for on Friday, 20 September, but our Cabinet has a rather crowded agenda. (I wonder if any of our youth are looking into where Minerals Minister Gwede Mantashe will be that morning?)

One cannot negotiate with the climate crisis – every deferral of available action has consequences and moral hazard. One can, however, negotiate for concessionary finance for renewable energy development in our heavily-indebted electricity system, perhaps through a publicly-owned investment vehicle linked to a transparent plan for our existing coal-fired fleet. And what better platform to demonstrate leadership than the UN General Assembly? DM

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