THABO MOTSHWENI | Coal–powered energy not sustainable for the future

Transnet is on course to rail only 47-million tonnes of coal to port this year, the lowest in three decades.
Transnet is on course to rail only 47-million tonnes of coal to port this year, the lowest in three decades.
Image: ROBERT TSHABALALA

It has been 100 days since the last power outage. While repairing the Kusile coal-fired power plant is a significant factor, one might wonder about other underlying causes. Is this break a sign of improved infrastructure and management, or is it just a temporary pause concealing more profound systemic problems? Eskom's history of mismanagement and corruption points to the latter, and it's just a matter of time before the power outages start again. 

Amid this temporary break from power outages, City Power in Johannesburg still carries out its contentious "load reduction" policy which has a more significant effect on black communities. By focusing on areas predominantly inhabited by black residents, City Power's strategy not only reduces electricity demand but also perpetuates social and economic inequities. This unjust practice needs to be promptly dealt with. 

Kgosientsho Ramokgopa's unwavering support for coal-fired power plants shows a reluctance to adopt the essential switch to renewable energy. By declining the Just Energy Transition Partnership, Ramokgopa refuses international assistance to facilitate this change. This choice commits SA to a trajectory of ongoing carbon emissions, which undermines global climate objectives and wastes chances for economic expansion and employment growth in the renewable energy industry. He said that improved technology is essential to tackle the climate crisis. 

“You are not sitting with a coal problem; you are sitting with an emissions problem. Resolve the issue of technology – we’ve got sufficient know-how.” 

The combination of Ramokgopa's stance and Eskom's emphasis on maintaining a 70% energy availability factor (EAF) indicates a continued dependence on coal.

Eskom group executive generation Bheki Nxumalo said, “If we maintain a 70% EAF and add significant capacity within the country, we can ensure adequate available capacity to meet demand without a significant risk of load-shedding.”

Coal may provide immediate energy security but hinders SA's progress towards a more environmentally friendly and sustainable energy future. The rejection of the Just Energy Transition Partnership reinforces the country's carbon-heavy energy environment. 

On top of this problem, Gwede Mantashe's persistent control over the mining and petroleum industries worsens the issue. His denial of climate change and strong advocacy for fossil fuel drilling, such as offshore gas exploration, present significant threats to our environment. Mantashe's strategies prioritise immediate economic benefits at the detriment of long-term sustainability, endangering our natural legacy and the welfare of future generations.

The appointment of Dion George from the DA as the new environment minister introduces a different, yet equally perilous, set of challenges. While George's advocacy for eco-modernisation and pro-business sentiments may seem progressive on the surface, they often translate into policies that prioritise economic growth over genuine environmental protection.

In many cases, eco-modernisation tends to emphasise technological solutions and market-based approaches that do not adequately tackle the underlying causes of environmental degradation. George's approach could lead to a regulatory environment where business interests overshadow ecological preservation, resulting in insufficient protection for our natural resources.  

SA's current trajectory under the Government of Neoliberal Unity is deeply troubling. The appointments of Ramokgopa, Mantashe, and George suggest a continued reliance on outdated energy models and prioritisation of business interests over environmental sustainability. 

While achieving 100 continuous days without load-shedding is significant, it should not be seen as a panacea for Eskom's deep-seated issues. The utility's progress must be sustained through a genuine commitment to renewable energy, improved governance, and equitable policies that address the needs of all South Africans. The risk of reverting to old patterns remains high unless there is a decisive spin towards a sustainable and inclusive energy future. 

As SA confronts its status as one of the world's most carbon-intensive economies, it is crucial for Eskom and the government to adopt transformative change. This involves phasing out coal, investing in renewable energy, and addressing systemic inequalities in energy distribution. Only by doing so can we guarantee long-term energy security, environmental sustainability, and social justice for all South Africans. 

  • Motshweni is PhD candidate in department of sociology at University of Johannesburg 

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