Andreas Späth

A fantasy of falling towers

2010-08-25 07:30

“I remember the moment the Athlone cooling towers fell as though it happened a few days ago. The annoyingly premature detonation. The structures collapsing in on themselves. The dull thud and the puff of dust drifting across the Cape Flats.

I was nine years old at the time.

It was a winter Sunday made for a monkey’s wedding and my dad had taken us boys to Rhodes Memorial where a large crowd had gathered to witness the spectacle. Little did any of us know how dramatically this event would change South Africa, symbolically signalling the end of the age of coal.

Watching those towers collapse all those years ago made me who I am today. I’m Benjamin Späth, environmental demolition engineer, and for the past three decades I’ve made a living by blowing up coal-fired power stations.

Of course the demise of King Coal didn’t just happen overnight. The government and politicians of the day were too invested - philosophically and financially - in a carbon-intensive energy future. Since the industrialised countries had gone this route, wasn’t it our right to do the same? Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan summed up the attitude in a Washington Post op-ed piece, saying that we had no choice but to rely on coal.

Eskom, already one of the world’s champion CO2 emitters, had plans to build new coal plants in ecologically sensitive areas and declared the need to open at least 40 new coal mines. Ever willing to fund dubious mega-projects, the World Bank granted Eskom a $3.75bn loan, most of it to fund the controversial Medupi power station which was going to add 25 million tons of CO2 to our national carbon footprint annually.

But we put a stop to all that. The impetus came from the communities living in the vicinity of power stations and coal mines, whose health, environment and livelihood where threatened by the degradation of their water supplies, mercury pollution and acid mine drainage. It came from activist-driven organisations like groundWork and Earthlife Africa and it came from young people who had had enough of seeing their world and their future being trashed.

There were some hotheads who threatened to start demolishing power stations immediately, but most of us knew that there was preparatory work to be done. We started organising at our universities and school and in our townships, suburbs and villages. We took to the streets demanding that government stop its climate-changing coal madness.

Communities came up with innovative energy descent strategies to wean themselves of coal and oil. Researchers started making breakthroughs in tapping and storing South Africa’s tens of thousands of megawatts of potential wind energy and hundreds of thousands of megawatts of solar power. Soon we forced government to halt the construction and de-mothballing of coal power stations. Faltering parastatals like Armscor and Eskom were reinvented to drive the establishment of a local renewable energy research, manufacturing and service industry.

I joined the First Environmental Demolition Brigade straight out of school. Mpumalanga’s Kriel and Hendrina power stations were the first to go, on the back of a massive, nationwide energy efficiency drive. The cancellation of sweetheart deals, which had provided the world’s cheapest electricity to some of its richest multinational corporations for years, allowed us to flatten more. Some we left standing as reminders of history’s folly – like the Matimba Towers in Limpopo, now a world-famous climbing and bungee-jumping destination.

Huge numbers of coal miners were re-trained to kick-start the new green economy, building community-run micro renewable power stations and installing tens of thousands of affordable solar water heaters. Thousands of 2MW wind turbines were erected along the Cape coast in short thrift and the first of several massive off-shore wind farms opened in 2018. In 2021 Upington became the global capital of concentrated solar power. Coal shipments have long been replaced with exports of green electricity and quality South African thin-film photovoltaic panels.

Through all of this we continued to demolish dirty old coal power plants until the very last one tumbled this weekend, on the 22nd of August 2050. I remember standing at Rhodes Memorial on the same day in 2010, asking my dad what was on his mind. ‘Nothing much, Ben,’ he replied. ‘Just a silly daydream.’”

- Andreas manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre.

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