Eskom starts shutting down old coal power plants

Eskom has begun shutting down its old power stations, with the closure of three units at the Hendrina power station near Middelburg in Mpumalanga.

Wits academic Jacklyn Cock told delegates at the Just Coal Transition symposium in Cape Town on Wednesday that Hendrina’s remaining units were to be shut down by April 22.

"Eskom workers will be taken care of, but most of the 2 300 workers are short-term contract workers for whom Eskom takes no responsibility," Cock said.

Cock, who did not reveal her sources, repeated the statement that Hendrina would be closed by the end of April in a paper published on Thursday in the online journal The Conversation.

"There is no protection for the bulk of the workforce, 2 300 of whom are contract workers hired by labour brokers," Cock said.

Cock, a professor emerita in sociology at Wits and a research professor at the university’s Society, Work and Development Institute, wrote that there were strong economic and ecological arguments for shutting down inefficient coal power stations, but said this should not happen at the expense of workers.

"Yet there are signs that it already is."

Asked to comment, Eskom confirmed that three of Hendrina’s units had already been decommissioned.

However, it said the remaining units were expected to be shut down between June this year and November 2022. It did not specify the dates for the shut down of each of the 200 MW units.

"Eskom has a human resources plan for the redeployment of the affected staff and is in discussion with relevant stakeholders," Eskom said.

The 2 000 MW Hendrina power station, built between 1970 and 1976 and refurbished in the mid 1990s, is one of three aging power stations that Eskom will close over the next few years. The others are Grootvlei, which is scheduled to close by 2020 and Komati by 2021. Arnot will close by 2029.

The international symposium, organised by UCT’s Energy Research Centre, focused on discussing ways to limit the impact of coal mine and power plant closures on employees, communities and regions.

Many towns around the world came into existence only because of coal mines or power plants, and had in the past been left with nothing once these closed.

Delegates heard that with the global decline in demand for coal, mine closures and power station shut downs were set to accelerate.

Speakers who had helped managed the transition away from coal in other countries advised South Africa to include workers, unions and all those affected early on so they were not blindsided with closure with little warning.

Unemployment rates, illiteracy

Nelson Ratshoshi, chair of the Highveld branch of the National Union of Mineworkers, told delegates the union was concerned about the chances of coal miners finding other work both because of South Africa’s high unemployment rate and because some of the older miners could not read or write as they had never had a chance to go to school under apartheid.

He questioned how South Africa’s commitment under the Paris Agreement to cut carbon emissions could be reconciled with the job losses of thousands in the coal sector.

Ratshoshi said unions needed to be "convinced" the transition was necessary.

"Let’s present the facts where everyone can be convinced. Convince us. Come up with something where our culture can be easily adapted. We need to persuade each other in this."

Tasneem Essop of the National Planning Commission, told delegates she did not believe there was the time for skepticism about climate change.

The facts were there, particularly the IPCC’s sobering 1.5°C climate change report released late last year.

"If you read that and are not shocked and horrified, then I don’t know what else you need to be shocked into action."

One of the big issues about climate change was that the impact would be greater on the poor and vulnerable.

"The role of trade unions is to proved leadership to the poor and the working class. I don’t think this is the time for skepticism. I suggest engaging with the facts. Part of engagement is you must be willing, not sit with your position and never change it," Essop said.

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