Andreas Späth

Down Eskom’s garden path

2011-05-18 12:08

What’s Eskom done for you lately? They’ve taken away the subsidy on solar water heaters. They’re building or are planning to build more dirty and dangerous coal and nuclear power plants.

With winter on the way, they’ve announced that, although the national electricity supply situation will be tight, they’ll do their very best to prevent a repeat of past problems, which, quite frankly, sounds like pre-emptory spin to me - expect to be load-shed this winter.

Asking what they’ve done for you lately is a legitimate question. Eskom is a state-owned enterprise and all of us are effectively shareholders. But perhaps it’s more pertinent to ask what Eskom and the South African government, in its mandate to supply us with sustainable electricity, haven’t done for us lately.

They haven’t worked particularly hard at trying to save electricity. Improved energy efficiency measures are widely acknowledged to have the potential to substantially reduce electricity demand. But I guess you can’t expect an entity that sells electricity for profit to convince its customers to buy less.

Enormous potential but…

They haven’t made it easy for power producers other than themselves to contribute to the national electricity supply. We do have world-class feed-in tariffs on paper, but in reality the system is as yet non-functional. Here too, the potential is enormous.

About half of the 43 000 megawatts of electricity generated in Germany using renewable energy technologies is produced by ordinary citizens, farmers and companies whose solar panels and wind turbines feed it into the national grid.

They haven’t listened to “the people” a whole lot. The panel that drafted government’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP2), which will define South Africa’s electricity policy for the next 20 years virtually ignored comments from civil society organisations and consisted almost exclusively of representatives from the Department of Energy, Eskom, the Chamber of Mines and various oil, coal and power companies, including Sasol, Xstrata, BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Exxaro. Is it surprising that the document they came up with is coal- and nuclear-friendly and ensures that we’ll be burdened with fossil fuels and their impacts for decades to come?

They haven’t been in a hurry to increase their capacity to supply electricity. It takes years to build new coal and nuclear power stations. Well-established renewable energy technologies, on the other hand, are available off the shelf right now and can be built and brought online much quicker.

Not up to speed

And the solution doesn’t just lie in gigantic, centrally operated solar plants and wind farms. There are many economic and environmental benefits to be had from smaller, distributed renewable energy systems owned and controlled by the rural and urban communities they supply.

They’re certainly not up to speed with what’s happening in the rest of the world. Germany and Japan have scrapped plans to build new nuclear power plants and are investing heavily in renewable energy. Research shows that renewables are up to the job.

A study published by researchers at Stanford University in January, for instance, suggests that they are capable of supplying the planet’s energy needs within 20 to 40 years using current technology at costs comparable to fossil fuels and nukes. According to Professor Mark Z Jacobson, one of the co-authors, “there are no technological or economic barriers to converting the entire world to clean, renewable energy sources”.

Crucial crossroads

The UN’s high-powered Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just released a report outlining how renewable energy can provide almost 80% of humanity’s energy needs by 2050. Lead authors Ramon Pichs and Sven Teske point out that there is overwhelming scientific evidence that developing countries – that’s us – have the best conditions to exploit these resources and that they can provide their growing electricity requirements.

We’re at a crucial crossroads. Do we carry on down the old, business-as-usual dead-end by continuing to rely heavily on unsustainable, hazardous and polluting fossil fuels and nuclear power? Or do we take the path to a sustainable, clean and climate-friendly renewable energy future? It’s no longer an issue of technicalities, but one of political will.

The fundamental question is whether Eskom and our government have the balls to make the right decisions. Unfortunately, by all estimations, they still need to grow a pair.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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