Eskom has put out a code red and urgently needs new energy supply. But it can only do so much with one hand tied behind its back by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, says Alex Lenferna.
Many South Africans will be in the dark about May having been the government’s official energy month. Of course, it’s not the only thing they were in the dark about, with the same month putting into high gear South Africa's potentially worst year of load shedding ever.
Anger has risen in many quarters against Eskom for the sorry state of South Africa’s electricity. Eskom urgently needs to get its house in order and stem the tide of corruption, sabotage and incompetence, deepening our energy crisis.
Eskom, however, can only do so much when it has one of its hands tied behind its back by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy under Minister Gwede Mantashe.
Eskom, for its part, has put out a code red saying that it urgently needs a new energy supply to prevent load shedding from deepening in the years to come. It put out a host of policy changes that could help narrow the country’s rapidly widening energy supply gap.
Amazingly, the minister responded not by acting on those recommendations. Instead, he took to the air with the false claim that Eskom does not have to be load shedding because it has enough excess energy supply it could tap into.
The evidence is clear that Eskom’s ailing coal fleet has an energy availability factor well below what is required to provide the country with reliable electricity. South Africa desperately needs new energy supply to provide room for Eskom to perform desperately needed maintenance and plug the rapidly growing energy supply shortfall the country faces.
However, getting new energy online is the responsibility of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy – a responsibility the minister and his department have failed dismally on. Consider the flagship emergency power procurement programme. After three delays to its "non-negotiable" deadline of July 2021, it is yet to even reach financial closure, never mind begin construction. That’s nearly two years after it was launched to rapidly bring new energy online.
The project is also proving to be simply uneconomic, especially with gas prices so high and volatile.
The powerships are a potent symbol of failure – the prioritisation of projects that are polluting, outdated, and expensive, which continues. Projects like new coal, which banks refuse to finance for both economic and environmental reasons. Or new nuclear power, which we’ll be lucky if we get online by 2035, that is, if the economics of it even make sense in the face of cheap renewables.
On the gas front, the attempt to set up a massive new gas-to-power industry will take many years and lots of money - and the evidence increasingly shows that it’s more affordable and reliable to invest in renewables and storage. Gas is increasingly unnecessary and expensive for South Africa, with gas infrastructure likely to become stranded, uneconomic assets.
Meanwhile, renewable energy, the fastest, most affordable solution to our energy crisis, languishes. Countries like Vietnam were able to bring on six coal power stations worth of solar energy within just one year due to smart policy. During Mantashe’s tenure, the DMRE has not successfully brought online any new large-scale renewable energy projects, apart from those already in the pipeline from Mantashe’s predecessor.
In the face of the Ukraine-Russia war-induced global energy crisis, the EU and others are urgently rolling out plans to rapidly develop renewable energy, thus ensuring energy security, reliability, and affordability. But the DMRE is clinging to their outdated, expensive and polluting Integrated Resources Plan of 2019 - a plan they haven’t even delivered on.
In the end, these failures also belong to the president. It is not enough for President Cyril Ramaphosa to occasionally override Mantashe on strategic issues. He must replace him.
With South Africa facing compounding mining, energy and climate crises, we need a minerals and energy minister and department with a vision suited to the 21st century and the challenges we face.
Alex Lenferna is secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition and a campaigner with 350Africa.org. He holds a PhD on climate and energy justice. Views are the author's own.