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Unions meet MPs to thrash out Eskom, loadshedding concerns

Trade unions presented their views on Eskom to MPs this week.
Trade unions presented their views on Eskom to MPs this week.
Image: Orrin Singh

Trade unions have accused the government of being dictated to by Western countries to close coal-fired power stations while many developed countries still rely heavily on South Africa for coal.

Unions voiced their opinions during an engagement with the portfolio committees on public enterprises and mineral resources and energy and the select committee on public enterprises and communications at Eskom's Megawatt Park head office on Thursday.

The engagement was part of a two-day oversight visit by the committees to Eskom to assess interventions aimed at resolving the energy crisis.

Representatives from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and Solidarity highlighted concerns about the lack of focus on maintenance of coal power stations, the skills shortage, the role of private companies in alleged sabotage at power stations, unwarranted mothballing of coal power stations and the ability of independent power producers (IPPs) to alleviate the challenges.

NUM's Eskom shop steward Phumzile Mvovo said power stations such as Komati were being run into the ground.

“The budgets allocated for maintaining power stations are not being used for maintenance. When a power station is shut down there is poaching of spares from one unit for another. If a particular component breaks at one plant, rather than purchase a new component we salvage a unit from another plant. These plants are left solely for spares.”

The government and Eskom have been paying IPPs for growth while compromising maintenance.

“These people we [are] bringing into our plants are not always loyal to the organisation. For these contractors to continue getting work, they sabotage our plants. We need to determine what their purpose is.”

Mvovo said developed countries were quick to tell South Africa to move away from coal while they have reverted to coal due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“They tell us 'move away from coal' and yet we have a line of trucks on the N2 going to Richards Bay for exporting coal to these countries.”

Numsa spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola questioned Eskom and the government's stance on retiring ageing power plants.

“Eskom's operational data affirms there is no correlation between the age of power plants and their performance. The data from Eskom suggests Eskom’s operational problems are the main cause of breakdowns and reliability issues rather than the age of the plants.”

She referred to Germany, which faced energy challenges due to the Russia-Ukraine war and pulled out of its climate change commitment goals.

“Germany took steps and opened its coal mines, coal power stations and extended their lifespan. This is because Germany knows scientifically, it is coal that will deliver a reliability of energy supply and it also knows you cannot sacrifice communities for three years and subject them to rolling blackouts.”

She said South Africa was allowing itself to be dictated to by the West.

“When the West, its baseload to power its economy and consistently deliver reliable electricity supply to its people is on coal, gas and nuclear. The question is who’s fooling who? We must not forget Africa accounts for less than 4% of the CO2 responsible for climate change. The UK, US, and China are primarily responsible, so why should South Africa carry the burden of the sins of the Western world? We still have to drive industrialisation for the sake of our economic growth.”

PODCAST | We all know the solution: get the politicians out of Eskom

Fixing load-shedding is not a solution to our energy crisis. Changing policy framework is needed to pave the way for different role players to enter the generation market
Helgard Cronje, Solidarity deputy president

Numsa's Enos Mbodi, who sits on the presidential climate change committee, said the country was collapsing its economic advantage.

“We have 200 years of coal under the ground and if you look at the stats, in the first five months of 2022 the increase in European exportation of our coal was about 589%. We are throwing everything that is advantageous for ourselves away by giving it to everyone else. Loans we are taking from the Western world, from the US, are taken for closing power stations which is not to the benefit of our people.”

Solidarity's Theuns du Buisson agreed South Africa could not continue taking loans.

“We cannot keep taking money from overseas and then dance to their tune.”

While coal was not a sustainable energy resource for the future, right now it remained the only one, he said. Eskom also needed to provide clarity on grid capacity.

“We keep hearing there is no grid capacity in the Northern Cape, for example, and we accept that — there are very few people living in the Northern Cape, but can we request a map be published as to where there is still grid capacity so possible investors know where they can develop new capacity.”

Solidarity deputy president Helgard Cronje said there was no quick fix to load-shedding and changes to the policy framework were needed.

“To change the CEO will not fix loadshedding. There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed. Fixing loadshedding is not a solution to our energy crisis. Changing policy framework is needed to pave the way for different role players to enter the generation market. The red tape in application processes to generate energy need to be removed expeditiously. During a crisis like this there should be less talking and less politics and more fixing and doing.”

Eskom's board and senior management will engage the committees on Friday on:

  • energy availability;
  • security of electricity supply;
  • the operational state of power stations;
  • governance at the entity;
  • the appointment of a new CEO;
  • possible solutions to loadshedding; and
  • alleged sabotage and theft at power stations.

The committees “acknowledged the unions presented varied solutions to the energy crisis, with some advocating enhanced focus on renewables while others encouraged continued reliance on coal”.

“Besides the differing approaches presented, the underlying theme was the willingness to resolve the challenges. This requires collaboration at all levels of Eskom to enable the adoption of common strategies to overcome loadshedding.”


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