Eskom, as we know too well, is in a mess. Soaring energy prices, unsustainable levels of debt, and an ageing, unreliable and polluting coal fleet are putting it in mortal danger. Many may have already written off the ailing utility as doomed to failure. But Eskom is the sort of entity that is too big to fail, because if it fails, so much of South Africa fails with it.
In light of the dire consequences if Eskom does fail, a plan to fix it is desperately needed. For the past couple of years the Eskom leadership has been working on a plan that might just turn the ship around. It relies on securing favourable international climate finance to accelerate the retirement of coal, service its debt and invest in a just transition to renewable energy.
The benefits of the plan would be that Eskom could reduce its debt down to sustainable levels, lower its reliance on unreliable, expensive and polluting coal power, and invest in more affordable renewable energy to stabilise our energy supply and hopefully end load shedding. It’s reported that envoys from the UK, US and Europe are travelling to South Africa as early as this week to discuss moving forward on the plan.
It seems that after a long, dark night there may finally be a light at the end of the tunnel. This is not an uncritical, glowing review of Eskom though. The Climate Justice Coalition, where I serve as secretary, is pushing Eskom to do better. As part of our Green New Eskom campaign, we are calling for a rapid and just transition to a more socially owned, renewable energy future.
In relation to Eskom’s proposed plan, we do worry about how much the plan aims to invest in polluting fossil gas. We worry about what strings the international climate finance will come with. We worry about whether Eskom will transition to renewable energy fast enough, and if it will invest enough in a just transition to ensure that workers and communities dependent on coal are not left behind.
However, while we have some concerns about the exact future that Eskom is taking, at least it is starting to go roughly in the right direction. Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, on the other hand, is trying to take us backwards, keep us locked into the past, into a dysfunctional, expensive and polluting energy regime.
While Mantashe’s own party has come out in favour of the Eskom plan, he stands isolated in opposition to it. That’s a deeply worrying opposition given that he is the minister in charge of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. A department which potentially has the power to scupper Eskom’s plans, and has shown time and time again it’s unwillingness to embrace a renewable energy future, perhaps for fear of losing fossil-fuelled tenders.
Mantashe’s reasoning for opposing the Eskom plan is as outdated as it is wildly inaccurate. He argues that moving away from coal would be “economic suicide”. In reality, the exact opposite is true. Renewable energy prices have dropped at such a rapid rate that they are the cheapest energy on Earth – making a continued reliance on coal economic suicide.
As Bloomberg reports, renewable energy costs have dropped so much that it is actually cheaper in much of the world to build new renewable energy than it is to simply to continue to run coal or gas plants – and that’s even if you take out of consideration all of the costs that harmful pollution puts onto society. So you’d save money by shutting down coal and gas plants, not building new ones, and certainly not locking us into a crazy R200-billion, 20-year contract for expensive and polluting, gas-burning powerships as Mantashe’s department aims to do.
With trends of cheaper renewables set to continue, a recent Oxford University report shows that rapidly rolling out renewable energy is the most economical path ahead of us. The cheapest energy future is to pretty much decarbonise the entire global energy sector within the next 25 years. It’s also a pathway which gives us a chance of keeping global warming from going above the vital threshold of 1.5°C – a target agreed to under the Paris Climate Agreement by every nation on Earth, beyond which we would see increasingly catastrophic climate impacts.
Trying to force nuclear, coal and fossil gas into the mix, as Mantashe aims, would harm the economy and drive the cost of energy up. It would also, of course, lock South Africa into a more polluting energy system. That’s both an environmental and an economic worry, as countries like the US and the EU are considering carbon border tariffs which would penalise carbon pollution-intensive economies. And South Africa is one of the world’s most carbon-intensive economies.
So back to Eskom, the biggest polluter on the African continent. If Mantashe puts his foot down and attempts to block its plans for a transition to renewable energy, in the name of keeping us locked into coal… well, then he may well have blocked one of the only routes left to save Eskom. By extension, he is likely to lock in devastating economic impacts, widening energy injustice, and deepening dysfunction for the country.
Given this reality, one could rightfully conclude that Mantashe’s coal fundamentalism may be one of the biggest threats to South Africa’s future. It is for this reason (and many others) that across the country a broad civil society coalition is mobilising this week under the banner of #UprootTheDMRE. They are calling for Mantashe to step aside and for his department to be transformed to pursue an inclusive and socially, economically and ecologically just energy future.
If we do not want Mantashe to condemn us and Eskom to a doomed future, let us hope that the protests are successful, or that Eskom finds some way to circumvent Mantashe’s madness. Otherwise, we may have to hope and pray that Mantashe has a come-to-Jesus moment. An unlikely conversion, which we would be as unwise to bet on as a tiger going vegan. DM/OBP
Alex Lenferna is secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition and a campaigner with 350Africa.org. He holds a PhD in climate and energy justice from the University of Washington.