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Renewable energy: Unions must wake up and smell the coffee, or get run over by electric cars

By Roland Ngam
19 Jan 2021 14

Dr Roland Ngam is programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Southern Africa. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Trade unions cannot be Luddites, harking back to a bygone era. While unions keep the lights on and invent the future in other parts of the world, South Africa’s worker representatives are missing in action. Eskom is the motor that drives the South African economy and unions cannot be silent because every worker’s job is on the line.

Debates are raging about Eskom’s role and future after the corporation announced on 14 January 2021 that the country would, once again, be plunged into darkness

Eskom specified that the latest round of power cuts had been prompted by the loss of 5,358 megawatts of energy due to planned maintenance, and elimination of a further 14,748MW due to unplanned maintenance and breakdowns. 

It added that load shedding will probably continue beyond September 2021.

The announcement caused an immediate outcry on social media, with responses of “just do your job” to tweets shared by Eskom on how to remain productive during load shedding. 

The power cuts were entirely predictable. 

Confidence in Eskom is at its lowest ebb as the power utility hurtles from one crisis to another and it is extremely likely that load shedding will still be a fixture of South African life even beyond 2022. 

However, one has to wonder how it is that Eskom is incapable of providing electricity when large parts of the economy are shut down due to Covid-19-related restrictions.

It has been 13 years since load shedding was first introduced in post-apartheid South Africa – 13 years since construction work started at Medupi. Why are power cuts still happening? 

Brian Molefe can blame Cyril Ramaphosa all he wants (sour grapes much?), but years of corruption, mismanagement of skilled staff and supply contracts by managers, including Molefe, as well as inadequate forward planning, mean that 59 million people are today using power capacity that was largely developed for apartheid-era South Africa when only a third of the country was connected to the power grid

While we are on the subject of the power crisis, we must lament the fact that those who should be leading an inquest into Eskom’s problems have fallen largely silent over the years, except for the Democratic Alliance and a few others who issue perfunctory press statements whenever rolling outages occur. 

On this specific issue, the biggest disappointment has to be trade unions – and here I am referring to trade unions in general, and those in the mining and energy sector in particular.

It is easy to blame Eskom CEO André de Ruyter for all of South Africa’s energy problems – people love scapegoats. However, De Ruyter’s role is to do everything to keep the lights on while simultaneously preparing for Eskom’s unbundling into three units (generation, transmission and distribution), as announced by President Ramaphosa on 7 February 2019.  I’m not giving him a pass, but he is managing the hand he was dealt as best he can. He is fulfilling the mandate that he was appointed to execute.

Now, back to the trade unions: what are they doing while De Ruyter executes his mandate? Eskom is the motor that drives the South African economy and, while it struggles, trade unions cannot be silent because every worker’s job is on the line.

Unions should be out there, every day, leading debates around some of the following questions: How do we generate more electricity to make load shedding a thing of the past? What happens to workers when Eskom is finally unbundled? Do all workers keep their jobs, or are most simply cast aside as new entities opt for smaller, leaner and more efficient structures? Are worker jobs sustainable in the current fossil-intensive economic model? Is there space for a democratically owned and controlled energy space in South Africa? What type of energy mix does South Africa need and how many jobs would be created under a new green dispensation? What would be the benefits of this new low-carbon economy for workers? Is South Africa ready for electric cars? What happens to petrol service station staff if/when electric cars replace combustion engines?

The biggest unions were too close to the Jacob Zuma administration when the Medupi and Kusile projects started. Although the cost of installing renewable power plants had already dropped significantly by 2007, they backed the construction of more coal plants, thinking that they would be good for jobs. 

Imagine the number of renewable power plants that could be built in under five years with the R234-billion Medupi is rumoured to have cost! Thirteen years later, Medupi and Kusile have still not come onstream. Ironically, the jobs that Cosatu and others sought to protect have been lost to corruption, mine closures and now the coronavirus pandemic.

Incredibly, job losses and climate change imperatives have still not jolted unions into action. In typical reactive fashion, trade union federation Saftu announced shortly after Molefe’s appearance at the Zondo commission that Ramaphosa must be summoned to the commission immediately. Talk about priorities!

Unions cannot be Luddites, harking back to a bygone era. They must set the agenda with data that some of their units (Naledi, for example) already possess. They must push two debates front and centre of the post-Covid recovery plan: 1) democratically owned power plants in South Africa; and 2) accelerating the low-carbon transition, when we know that 2020 was the second hottest year on record, with global heating and multiyear droughts  becoming national security issues. That is how you keep the lights on and create more jobs.

If they need a template on how to set the public agenda on these big topics, they need look no further than the European Union (EU).

The EU plans to have at least 30 million zero-emission vehicles on its roads by 2030. After that, it is only a matter of time before combustion engines become history. These changes require an exponential increase in electricity supply and a lot of forward planning. The EU’s trade unions have not only made sure that these changes take place, but they have also ensured that all this is happening as coal and nuclear plants are replaced by renewable energy.

They led talks to expand electricity supply, bring down generation and distribution costs, and reinvent factories to produce more electric cars. They also helped build electric vehicle public charging stations

In Germany, workers shut down cities to call for a low-carbon transition. Union boss Roman Zitzelsberger vowed that “we will not let ourselves be deprived of our jobs and our future because employers have not done their homework”.

Union bosses worked with progressive politicians to implement new low- to zero-emission vehicle subsidies for new car purchases. 

In France, where there is a popular $13,000 electric car subsidy in place, 21.5% of all new cars sold in 2020 were hybrid or electric cars (243,651 hybrid cars and 110,912 100% electric cars). 

In Germany, which has a €9,000 electric car purchase subsidy, 562,000 low-emission vehicles were sold in 2020 (499,000 hybrid cars and 63,000 100% electric cars). 

Denmark plans to have at least 1 million zero-emission cars on its roads by 2030 (there are currently 2.5 million vehicles in all of Denmark!). 

In 2020, the market share for combustion engines in the EU dropped from 88% to 75.4%.

While unions keep the lights on and invent the future in other parts of the world, South Africa’s worker representatives are missing in action. As private investors from around the world prepare to pounce on the new Eskom entities when they are placed on the market, unions keep picking the wrong fights.

It’s time they woke up and joined the inexorable march of technology. DM


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All Comments 14

  • It is not only the unions which need to wake up. The Eastern Cape, for example, is over-dependent on the manufacturing of internal combustion engine – driven vehicles. There is no public discourse or planning about what will happen to jobs and the local economy when the technology is overtaken. It would be too much of a stretch for us to aspire to be a leader in one or other form of electric vehicle technology. That switch tripped with the Joule electric car which, at the time (2012), was innovative. The fall-back seems to be that there will still be a demand for internal combustion engines somewhere in the world, and we hope to be the producer of those dirty vehicles. “Hope” is the operative word. There is no visible plan – by government or industry.

  • Question: Do our Unions have the capability to pick any “other fights” e.g. becoming constructively engaged in seeking solutions to a dwindling economy instead of demanding more and destroying infrastructure to get it?

  • It seems to me that it is you banging the wrong drum, Mr Ngam. Even with the most optimistic predictions, coal power will be with us for at least another thirty years. Charging an electric car with coal power (even at a 50% coal in the mix) is emissions negative and producing an EV battery emits at least the first 100,000km of the emissions of an IC car. Until we have about an 80% renewable-powered electricity mix, EV’s are hugely negative for emissions. Get your facts straight!

    • Fears that electric cars could actually increase carbon emissions are a damaging myth, new research shows.
      Media reports have questioned if electric cars are really “greener” once emissions from manufacture and electricity generation are counted. The research concludes that in most places electric cars produce fewer emissions overall – even if generation still involves fossil fuels. Other studies warn that driving overall must be reduced to hit climate targets. The new research from the universities of Exeter, Nijmegen – in The Netherlands – and Cambridge shows that in 95% of the world, driving an electric car is better for the climate than a petrol car.
      The only exceptions are places like Poland, where electricity generation is still mostly based on coal.

      • Doesn’t South Africa generate most of its electricity from coal as well? ‘Only’ around 70% of Poland’s electricity comes from coal – where are we? Like them, we are going to have a long, slow, very expensive, transition ….

        • That is exactly the point – until SA decarbonises its electricity supply, the recharging of car batteries added to the emissions from producing the batteries is net negative for emissions. And we are decades away from that point in SA, unfortunately. Even in northern Europe, where there is a big contribution from renewables, it has been calculated that this deficit from battery production is essentially never caught up. Perhaps in France, with its principally nuclear fleet, the tipping point arrives sooner – maybe at 100,000km.

  • Love the title. And its surprising how fast the stone starts rolling down the hill once it has been pushed off the ledge of inertia.

  • Yes Roland, have our unions looked at the future and are they helping to future-proof their members’ interests? You rightly point to the coming flood of electric vehicles. That will bring opportunities and challenges. More electricity will indeed be needed, though not ‘exponentially’ – my colleague Fadiel modelled it at around 20% more electricity if all vehicle transport in the country went electric, see his work here But that will also need quite a different infrastructure than in the past, and building that infrastructure is where many of the jobs will be!

  • Hi Roland Ngam – Great article, thanks. I get a free marine news sheet at : [email protected] . If one is interested in the huge scale of marine wind power generation look it up there. Wind is here, now and huge. Unions and government politicians are well known not to look at the present and don’t see the future in South Africa.

  • Renewable Energy is all well and good, but it cannot provide a base load for night times and non windy days, (on the highveld 10 months per annum).
    Sure electric cars are good, how far do you want to drive? how many charging spots are there in the Karoo?
    Do you back a diesel generator in the boot so you can charge the battery while you stop for a braai or a picnic?

    • Full of trepidation, I traded in my ICE for an EV in September. I did the trip from CT to Knysna for New year, and I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to charge my EV during the trip, at the superchargers at key filling stations along the way. My car’s range is marketed as 429km fully charged, and I comfortably rely on it to give me 350km, with aircon and sound system running. Now how often does someone living in the city need to drive 350km in one day? With solar panels at home, my car is charged by the sun, the petrol saving ramps up the IRR on the solar installation, and I am doing my bit for passing the legacy of a habitable planet to my kids, which they will value more than the balance of a living annuity. All South Africans need to start thinking differently, and that includes civil society and trade unions.