State's energy plans must be shared

IT'S beginning to feel like we in South Africa are inside a Meghan Trainor song: My name is No, my sign is No, my number is No…

“Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson has refused to supply the DA with a range of documents related to the government’s nuclear power procurement plans, saying they are privileged, sensitive state documents the release of which ‘could compromise the new build process’.” (BDLive, September 6 2016)

“…civil society organisations are facing increasing resistance from Eskom to releasing documents relevant to Eskom’s environmental and health impacts, which are necessary to allow government and society to arrive at transparent, informed decision-making.” (Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) statement, September 7 2016)

Hmmm… Section 32(1) of the constitution says everyone has the right of access to “any information held by the state”. And Section 217(1) of the constitution adds a procurement process must be fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective. And the Dep Pres says on nuclear: "We are open to a fair and transparent procurement process, and at a scale and pace that our country can afford." But you wouldn’t think it from these reactions, wouldya?

The decisions we make about energy in this country have a very direct bearing on the quality of life of each and every South African.

There are a number of public health and public resource reasons to be very cautious before deciding whether we opt for renewing old coal-fired power stations, building nuclear, or focusing on renewables. Some of them are mentioned in that CER statement.

Air quality, for one. Look at the latest World Health Organisation’s Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database, and you’ll find there that six or seven of South Africa’s air pollution hotspots are in a band running from Sasolburg (Zamdela) to eMalahleni (Witbank), covering areas where there’s lots of traffic and industrial activity, but also coal burning in power stations (look here and see how they overlap with the names mentioned here.)

This NASA map (below) from late 2015 reflects global work measuring nitrogen dioxide (a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, which of course includes coal-fired power stations).

                                       NASA map of nitrogen dioxide concentrations in South Africa

Water: both nuclear and coal-fired energy generation use fair amounts of water; in South Africa, we’re rapidly heading into an era when water will be a very significant issue. I think there are serious concerns about nuclear, not least of which is the cost, the dodgy process to date, and the very long-term nature of any new-build power station – we are committing ourselves to a behemoth, something we cannot abandon in five years’ time should the need to be agile arise: we would have to finish the thing and then use it for many decades to wring out the value we’ve put into it.

Coal is a dirty way to get energy, for sure; but if we committed to a basket of options, it would be a ready-to-use base on which to build – and which could become quite a limited part of the basket. It’s entirely possible that we could get as much as 83% of our energy from renewables – which can be put in place in a flash, compared to nuclear and coal. And it turns out that wind is not nearly as unreliable an energy source as many would have us think.

Dr Tobias Bischof-Niemz and Crescent Mushwana (High-renewables scenarios: Thought experiments for the South African power system CSIR Energy Centre Pretoria, August 22 2016) point out:

* Our wind resource is on par with solar – in fact, more than 80% of the country’s land mass has enough wind potential to achieve 30% capacity factor or more;

* It’s far more reliably available than was previously believed (this presentation gives detail on how the mix of conventional energy sources, wind and solar photovoltaic would work, using real-time data over three years). On average wind power is available 24/7, with higher output in the evenings and nights;

* And “in a mix with cheap solar PV and expensive flexible power it is cheaper than dispatchable alternatives”.

(PS Wonder why Eskom has been talking down renewables, given that the much-touted Brics New Development Bank “will give a priority to projects aimed at developing the renewable energy sources”, with preference given to loans for renewable energy projects - TASS Russian News Agency, March 23 2016?)             

But whether we end up supporting new coal stations, nuclear or renewables across the board or a cocktail of energy sources, the point is: pouting and saying you will not share the info, No! is not the way to go. You have lost the confidence of vast swathes of the citizenry. We don’t trust you to spend big money (sucked out of our taxes) in a manner that is in the public interest.

And even without your history of waste and irresponsibility, these decisions are too important to be made by you and your entourages alone. Share the info, dear ministers and CEOs (those ‘state documents’ are, after all, OUR documents, because we ARE the state); go one surprising step further, and put together task teams drawn from civil society, business and politics, which honestly and fairly heed all inputs and come to careful, thoughtful consensus conclusions…

Oops, I must have nodded off, I’m dreaming, aren’t I? That’s the last thing you’ll do. You don’t quite get your role as public servants.

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