South Africa’s Energy Struggle: Why A Country With Some Of The Best Renewable Resource Potential Still Has Coal In Its Future

A second round of load shedding - a co-ordinated interruption to power supply - began in July of this year, and it felt like the last straw in the lockdown .

Load shedding, or rolling blackouts, were first introduced to South Africans in 2008. It describes how electricity coming from our leading public electricity supplier, Eskom, is shut down on a rotating schedule for certain periods of time due to an inability to meet power demands.

The periods start at 2.5 hours and can get up to 7.5 hours in total per day. Having been exposed to load shedding for 12 years now, and suffering the worst of it in 2019, it's hard to believe that the push for renewable energy sources are not at the forefront of current South African policy-making. Given that Eskom is responsible for 40% of the country's carbon emissions, and that91.2%of our energy comes from non-renewable (mainly coal) resources, it seems unthinkable that we haven't made the switch to renewables yet, particularly as we have some of the best potential for solar energy in the world.

We know this isn't as easy as it seems, and South Africa, having been dependent on coal for so long, has some hurdles to overcome if we want to transition to a renewable future. Sean O'Beirne, an environmental solutions business owner, has worked on some of the country's largest environmental impact assessments in the last 20 years. This work includes conducting reviews for two of Eskom's multiple power stations. We spoke to Sean about the hurdles in the way of a renewable energy future and what we can do to overcome them.

South Africa has historically been a coal rich country, meaning coal was cheap and burning it was a cheap energy source. In a paper published in ScienceDirect from researchers at LUT University however, it was found that renewables are in fact 25% cheaper than the current electricity plan (based on the best possible scenario) and are expected to only get more affordable. An issue that Sean highlighted with this however is that whilst coal is now becoming the more expensive option, it isn't necessarily the case if its infrastructure is already in place.

After this news what becomes disheartening to learn is that two of Eskom's coal-fired stations were built as recently as 2007 and are still under construction, an indicator of just how long it has taken us to give the climate crisis the attention it deserves.

And Eskom is aware of this issue - in a recent interview for the Daily Maverick, Eskom CEO, André de Ruyter, explained that Eskom is en route to retire old coal-fired generator units. This decision most likely comes after increased public pressure on Eskom following South Africa having to lower their air pollution standards due to big offenders such as Eskom and Sasol being unable to comply with the set air pollution standards. The inability to comply is due to many of these old generators being too costly to make compliant. And given that the South African government owns Eskom, it is sadly easier for them to lower air pollution standards.

Jobs first

In South Africa one of our most concerning factors in any debate that looks at an economic disturbance is employment, and the shift to renewables is no exception. With the current unemployment rate sitting at23.3% it's vital to consider how the roughly 200,000 jobs in the coal industry will be affected. The researchers from LUT however found that not only are coal jobs projected to decline by 16000 jobs in 2050, but that jobs in renewables will be estimated "408,000 by 2035 and tapering off to 278,000 by 2050 as construction jobs stabilise". This being said it's unlikely that Eskom's decision making and the pressure from trade unions will be eased with one set of research, but it is a hopeful start.

Are renewables a nearby solution?

Environmental solutions businessman, Sean O'Beirne, mentioned that what has become clear, despite the barriers in our ways, is that we cannot look at climate change as an isolated economic problem, and change is going to have to be radical if we are hoping to make a sustainable shift. It's important to keep in mind that countries such as Germany, did not make the jump to sustainable energy on a whim and their main driving factor became the rising oil prices during the crisis of 1973-1979 and the highlighted dangers of nuclear energy following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Germany's shift to renewables has been helped by their interconnected power grids across Europe. This has meant they have been able to source in power when developing renewables were unable to perform (such as in 2017).

In South Africa we don't have this luxury, but our isolated power supply does not mean we cannot make the shift . The work done by the researchers from LUT suggests that change is still possible and resources are still being invested into finding the solution. As consumers, we know that we have the power to assert change especially in our own homes, and although it may seem hard to choose where our power is coming from, we can start by ensuring that big suppliers, such as Eskom, are kept accountable to the changes they promise and that disruptions to this do not go unnoticed or unchallenged.

Written by Frances Housdon

Fran is a young South African journalism graduate passionate about the outdoors, and getting other people to enjoy them with her. She loves paddling down long rivers, exploring big mountains and consuming bulk quantities of peanut butter.

Photo by KYLE CUT MEDIA on Unsplash

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