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Will Gwede Mantashe doom Eskom’s future?

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Dr Alex Lenferna is secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition and a climate justice campaigner with 350Africa.org. He holds a PhD on climate and energy justice from the University of Washington.

Minister Mantashe is opposing what might be Eskom’s only chance to save itself. By extension, he may be dooming South Africa to devastating economic impacts, widening energy injustice, and deepening dysfunction.

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.

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  • Sadly the Democratic Alliance ruled City of Cape Town also has a hostile approach to investments by citizens in renewable energy as it threatens its ruinous electrical energy cash cow.

      • Presumably because as a reseller of Eskom energy, the city council depends very heavily on the profitable sale of this commodity to the wealthier parts of its constituency in order to cross-subsidize unprofitable supply to the poorer parts of its constituency

        • Government pays councils a separate fund for free basic electricity, so don’t fall for that old line : we have to charge you more because indigent get free electricity.

  • The green energy, anti-carbon brigade, driven by inaccurate knowledge of power systems, are the likely parties to end Eskom, and by extension, the country. It is a pipedream to believe that base-load power can be derived from green energy sources – they can only deliver supplementary power, in excess of base load demand. The best strategy would be incentivise as many parties who do not require consistent base load supply off the grid and then determine what base load Eskom will need to deliver in the future to keep industry turning. The picture looks bleak though, with so many old coal stations set to be decommissioned in the near future. The only solutions to base load supply are coal or nuclear – and it is a fallacy that they are more expensive than green energy. But to the green parties, both of these solutions are pure anathema as it ties into their ideology rather than science. For the sake of the country, Eskom and the government need to make viable decisions on future base-load energy supply quickly, as the lead times to build and commission power stations are lengthy. I share the author’s concern’s around the governing parties ability to undertake such a task without the influence of vested interests – but not much else!

    • It will be interesting to see how the situation pans out in SA compared to the UK and Germany. We have much more accessible potential solar energy here compared to the the European countries that are struggling with maintaining baseload in the northern hemisphere.

      I suspect a majority renewable solar energy future with a few backup coal stations to help stabilize things in poor weather/at night during high demand periods is what the future of energy in SA looks like.

      • Agree. We will still need baseload stations for the near future, because storage costs are taking time to come down to the point where they are viable for mass storage. In the meantime we also need to engineer the baseload stations to become capable of load following. Time-of-use tariffs will become widespread to incentivize consumers to load shift and producers to invest in storage and peaking.

  • Renewables at utility scale will just perpetuate dependence on an inefficient political instrument. The answer for survivors is smart mini grids.

    Stay connected and use Eskom when it makes sense for your smart grid.

    Have a private grid that runs combination of solar directly consumed, solar and grid stored in batteries, limited grid subject to availability and generators for when all above not sufficient.

    At my factory I already pay an effective 320c/kWh between energy and availability. A generator is breakeven after this and the next 20% increase. So don’t argue cost.

    I anyway have almost MW generators thanks to loadshredding. So ignore generator capex.

    I have .6MW solar and will take that to 2.5MW so that I generate more per year than what I consume (about 4GWh)

    My investment risk is 2MWh of battery storage.

    Then I use Eskom when it’s energy rate makes sense and stays below my availability target kVA for them.

    Africa is not for sissies or victims. God helps those that help themselves so start planning for less grid-dependence no matter how green Eskom might become!

    • Use Eskom when I see fit. When the sun stops for a week everyone wants to switch back to Eskom. Where will Eskom get their power from when even their solar plants are not producing. Love to see the Eskom model.

    • That is fine for an individual solution. How does eskom stay operating so that you can plug in when you need to? That is my understanding of this discussion

  • “Mantashe’s reasoning for opposing the Eskom plan is as outdated as it is wildly inaccurate.” That also applies to Mantashe as a person: “outdated and wildly inaccurate”.

  • Mr Mantashe is part of a larger group of people( read ANC) who purport to know what is best for South Africa, but whose mindset and policies are so outdated that they can only be harmful to the greater good.It is time for rational, environmental and safer systems of governance to be implemented, and that time is running out!

  • The voices of all those who actually understand the dynamics of the Earth’s climate system are clamouring for an immediate end to fossil fuel use, everywhere. There is a superstorm of harm and destruction coming down the road as tipping points in the global climate system get triggered and we have perilously little time to avoid global catastrophe. You can call me any number of names for pointing this out, but that won’t change the reality of the physics at work here. The use of coal, gas, and oil has to stop, and it has to stop now. Arguments about affordability and ‘inaccurate knowledge of power systems’ are moot. We will have to figure out a way to keep our societies functioning as well as possible, but there is simply no future for any of us where coal, oil and gas are combusted. That is just a hard, practical fact. There is no ideology associated with this, it’s just 2+2=4. What we need is for everyone to think together, work together, and stand together to save as much of the Earth’s biosphere (of which we are part, of course) as we can. In the full balance of things, including our common future as humans, that is our best course of action.

    • Well said! Our survival is at stake, so let’s not even consider coal and gas. If we, South Africa, refuse to decarbonise then our trading partners will sanction us via border adjustment taxes on our high-carbon exports.

      • Forget what our trading partners say! When our biosphere has imploded because we are re arranging the deck chairs, there will be no trading partners.

  • I definitely do not agree! It is time the Courts allow Escom Court cases against all towns who did not pay over their collection of water and lights to Escom. Escom should NOT be saved from State funds. It is time we teach the companies of the State to function within their budget and to provide to those who pay. Look at the City Power in Jhb where they disconnect power and once they walk out the illegals just connect it again. Maybe Escom needs a rethink i.e. a box inside your house where you need to pin in a monthly code after payment to keep your power running.

  • What about the fact that SA sold our Pebble Bed Modular Reactor design Intellectual Property for a fortune to the USA (I am sure the Govt pocketed the money) when it was the best design and cleanest design in the world. So why should we now except dirty air?????

    • I am interested to be seeing more and more international environmental writers saying nuclear has to be part of the baseload. You can check out George Monbiot’s articles.

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