Load shedding: SA needs a just energy transition, but keeps kicking the can down the road

Longyuan Mulilo De Aar 2 (North). Photo Jay Caboz.
Longyuan Mulilo De Aar 2 (North). Photo Jay Caboz.
  •  Eskom last week reintroduced load shedding for the first time during the Covid-19 lockdown – this even when economic activity is notably subdued.
  • This raises the question of whether there is an even stronger case for renewable energy.
  • But while renewable energy is a least-cost, reliable energy option for SA, the energy transition also requires social responses.

Just two months ago, Eskom officials told the country they had made the most of lockdown to implement short-term maintenance of power stations, successfully limiting the probability of load shedding to three days in winter.

But two months is a long time in the energy sector, and a lot can go wrong. On Friday the power utility reintroduced load shedding for the first time since lockdown was implemented – this as a number of its generating units failed at its coal-fired power plants.

According to Eskom, the cold weather had led to a significant rise in demand. 

The recent spate of load shedding, or rather, Eskom's inability to deliver on its mandate to ensure secure electricity supply for an economy that's in recession, brings to the fore the debate on whether SA should increase its reliance on renewable energy technologies.

"The case for an energy transition was clear even before load shedding. But load shedding during a time of reduced demand and economic recession is certainly a signal that something needs to be done to improve the country's electricity generation capacity," said Bryce McCall, research officer of the Energy Systems Research Group at the University of Cape Town. 

There is enough evidence to show that renewable energy technologies such as solar PV and wind present a least-cost energy option for SA, arguably cheaper than coal. Transitioning to renewables will also help SA reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, in line with the country's commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change.

McCall believes renewables will play a central role in SA's new energy system in future, especially when coupled with storage and other flexible generation to bolster its reliability. It's also a trend the rest of the world is following – according to independent climate think tank, Ember, in 2019 global coal-fired electricity generation fell by 3%. By comparison, wind and solar energy generation increased by 15% and accounted for 8% of the world's electricity.

The excess capacity from renewables can also be used to stimulate other sectors of the economy, McCall explained. "During times of excess renewable energy capacity, that capacity can be used for the production of hydrogen, which in itself could be used for conversion back to electricity, or more likely – for the production of chemical feedstocks for things like ammonia, fertilisers, jet fuel or used directly for production of steel (and other metals). 

According to McCall: 

"The green hydrogen economy is seen as a major new emerging marketplace, and South Africa would be very well positioned to take advantage of this."

Just transition

But as we transition to renewable energy, we need to be mindful of the fact that SA is one of the most coal-dependent countries in the world. About 95% of SA's electricity generation is coal-fired. "There are a large number of workers and communities that rely on the coal mines, the power plants, and the trucking of coal, for jobs and their livelihoods," McCall said. 

Cosatu labour market policy coordinator Lebogang Mulaisi said that the labour federation is not opposed to renewables, but is open to additional energy sources for the country as envisaged by the Integrated Resources Plan. "It is definitely a time to investigate additional source of energy. But for us to talk about transitioning, there must be something to transition to," Mulaisi said. Workers cannot be expected to forego their jobs in the coal sector, without there being an established, and viable renewable energy sector in place, Mulaisi explained. 

The problem with the existing renewable energy independent power producer programme is that it did not necessarily address transformational issues - such as local ownership of energy infrastructure, said Mulaisi:

"We want to see the energy sector able to bring in poor household and communities, so that they can become owners of local [energy] production."

The renewable energy programme should improve employment, through the local manufacturing of renewable energy components and it should rectify issues of inequality by allowing local communities to have local ownership of plants. Ultimately by addressing these two issues, it will also help resolve the poverty crisis, she added.

Lauren Hermanus, a sustainable development practitioner who has also researched state capture at Eskom on behalf of Parliament's inquiry into the state utility three years ago, believes that what makes SA's energy transition complicated is that there are people who have vested interests in value chains complementing coal-fired power. "When we have had instances of progressive policy formation and attempts to implement policy there has been significant pushback," Hermanus said.

Hermanus believes renewable energy projects are advantageous in that they can address energy security issues urgently and they also allow for better governance practices. "Renewable energy [projects] can be smaller, easier to monitor, they can come online more quickly… There is a case for renewable energy from an urgency perspective, but also from a governance perspective," Hermanus said. Coal fired mega-projects, Medupi and Kusile, have been riddled with governance concerns, including cost overruns and are still "way behind" their scheduled completion, Hermanus explained. 

Social activism

Dr Alex Lenferna, secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition, is also of the view that much of the work to reform the energy sector requires addressing governance issues. Lenferna explained:

"At the heart of our energy struggle is state capture. There is no bigger state capture project than what took place at Eskom. What we are fighting against is corruption. Without undoing that corruption we can't unlock a better energy future."

The Climate Justice Coalition is working to put together a civil society forum which pushes for accountability and transparency from both Eskom and government. It recently launched the Green New Eskom Campaign, with the vision for an energy future which is not dependent on fossil fuels and which promotes socially-owned renewable energy. The coalition will be meeting with Eskom CEO André de Ruyter and other members of the executive team next week. 

It would not be far-fetched for Eskom, like its global counterparts, to become an important player within the renewable energy sector. But it is essential to have a strong just transition policy in place to support this action, so as not to leave behind vulnerable communities, Lenferna stressed.

Unfortunately, it appears government has been "kicking the can down the road" when it comes to devising a just transition plan. Lenferna said that it is up to society to hold government accountable for the implementation of a just transition programme. This includes possibly calling for Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe – who has been pushing fossil fuels instead of addressing the crisis – to leave office, he said.

These bold measures are required to keep government – which sets energy policy – accountable for change. If not, we risk still battling with load shedding in years to come, Lenferna said.

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