Govt will seek to soften blow from coal closures, says Mantashe

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Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe says his department is considering interventions to soften the blow of decommissioning coal power stations on local economies and mining towns.

Mantashe was briefing Parliament's Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources earlier in the week, a day before Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni tabled his Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement and hours before Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan released the long-awaited Eskom special paper.

Government's electricity generation master plan, released in mid-October, states that the proportion of electricity generated by coal will decrease over the next 11 years, as new proposed wind power projects come online. However, the Integrated Resource Plan still projects that 60% of SA electricity will still be generated from coal by 2030. Currently, coal plants generate 77% of electricity in the country.

While the Democratic Alliance pressed the minister and his delegation on why the department was not making a greater commitment to cheaper forms of renewable energy, the Economic Freedom Fighters demanded clarity on how the economies of towns built around coal stations would be preserved.

"We have just promulgated the IRP," said Mantashe. "One message we sent to government is that we cannot delay the building of plants and let them deteriorate. We have urged government to start the build programme, the sooner the better."

When DA MP Kevin Mileham asked Mantashe about the decommissioning of Hendrina, Grootvlei and Komati coal power stations in Mpumalanga – which Eskom began decommissioning in March – the minister said the department was following the lead of power utility Eskom. 

"Hendrina, Grootvlei and Komati are being decommissioned because of a notice sent to us from Eskom that they are nearing the end of their life. They were in the past recommissioned when they reached a late period in their life, which means that they are now in extra time," Mantashe said.

When EFF MP Dumisani Mthenjane asked Mantashe how the department hoped to mitigate the impact of decommissioning power stations on jobs at mining towns, Mantashe said he would soon update the committee on "an industrial plan for decommissioning".

Energy director-general Thabane Zulu said the department received frank feedback on the IRP and that while some argued that the move to renewables needed to be more aggressive, many appreciated South Africa's need to continue utilising its resources in coal.

"While the draft was welcomed, key issues were raised. One of the major issues was the extent of the energy mix. Concerns were raised around coal, from both sides, about the fact that we have an abundance of coal and we cannot leave it unutilised," said Zulu.

Speaking to reporters after the committee meeting, Mantashe said the IRP would be open to changes and updates on the road to 2050, but that a suggestion that it needs to be reviewed and edited as frequently as every two years was “ambitious”.

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