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Elemental power is fuelling a new world order

NEWS ANALYSIS

Wars are fought over resources, and there are few resources as important as coal and oil. Burning both of these fossil fuels to generate power has changed the world. But it has also created instability.

Controlling oil has meant invasions, such as the United States’ attacks on Iraq in 1990 and 2003. In South Africa, mining for coal has forced people off their land in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal.

READ MORE: Scramble for minerals leaves rural families homeless

South Africa has a lot of coal. It doesn’t have oil. If you have coal, it is increasingly difficult to get big loans to build power plants to burn it. If you don’t have oil, you have to import it. This means that, when the rand boings about against the dollar and oil prices are unsteady, the economy keeps being hit by oil price shocks.

The price increases when there are security threats — such as an invasion or civil war — against the countries that produce oil. Relying on imported oil also means things can go wrong. Eskom’s latest round of rotating power cuts were in part driven by its diesel-powered generators running out of fuel and having to wait for ships to offload more.

This formula will change if renewable energy is taken seriously. That’s the pitch by proponents of wind, solar, hydrogen, wave, hydro and geothermal power. It’s such a big deal that governments around the world are scrambling to position themselves as leaders of the shift from fossil fuel energy to renewable energy.

But there is one undisputed leader of this new soft power. China may have the biggest renewables industry and lead in every aspect of the technology, but Germany is its figurehead.

To prove the point, Germany’s foreign office hosted the annual Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue this week, with 50 foreign ministers and senior diplomats present.

The country’s selling point is that other countries can learn from it about how it got to the point where 40% of its grid is made up of renewable energy. By investing heavily in renewables, and allowing people to take part, the country pushed the industry to a point where other countries don’t need to pay the price of research and development. Individuals own 31% of all renewable energy in Germany, and 340 000 people work in the industry.

The fact that the energy dialogue was hosted by Germany’s foreign office is telling. Having had few colonies and no empire to force relationships, Germany is now using renewable energy agreements to cement alliances with other countries.

By flying in ministers, business leaders, industry experts and journalists — its government paid for the Mail & Guardian trip — Germany has bought a platform to argue for a world dominated by renewable energy. This leadership has worked so well that the German word for energy transition — energiewende — is now the go-to word around the world.

Opening the conference, Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, argued that shutting down coal-fired plants and opening renewable plants is the single most important action that can be taken to lower carbon emissions.

With emissions at record high levels last year, Maas warned that lowering them “is about our very existence”.

The clout of Germany in this space meant Maas was followed by the heads of two of the world’s most respected energy think tanks: the International Energy Agency and the International Renewable Energy Agency. Fatih Birol, the energy agency’s executive director, called out Germany and other countries for still operating coal plants, saying: “There is a growing disconnect between political statements, targets and what is happening in real life.”

Data from the United Nations’ climate change research agency — the intergovernmental panel on climate change — shows that this disconnect means the world is on course to warm by 3°C.

That’s double what is considered safe. At this level of warming, communities and countries will start to collapse when they are hit by debilitating storms and when water sources dry up.

Maas was joined by dozens of other speakers on panels during the two-day dialogue in saying that avoiding that level of climate change will make the world a safer place.

Avoiding it by building renewable energy will make the world even safer, because countries won’t have to import energy and rely on stability in other countries for their oil.

Chile’s energy minister, Susana Jiménez, said her country used to rely on oil imports and is now building a mix of wind, solar and geothermal power. The country used to send money abroad to power its economy, but now, she said, “we are very rich in this new energy”.

Thabane Zulu, director general of South Africa’s department of energy, went as far as saying that the country’s “saviour is renewables”. This is because of the capacity that it provided when Eskom’s power plants recently kept crashing out of operation. Without them, load-shedding would have reached stage five.

South Africa’s new energy blueprint, the Integrated Resource Plan, is still going through the last stages before it comes into force. It calls for 6 000 megawatts of new gas-powered plants to act as backup for 20 000MW of wind and solar power. The gas will have to be imported.

READ MORE: Enviro action plan for South Africa

But, with local companies looking to create a hydrogen industry to power vehicles, it could be the last bit of energy that South Africa has to import. And the gas might be replaced by battery capacity, which stores energy from renewables to be used when wind and solar plants aren’t producing at full capacity.

By doing this, South Africa will be part of a world where countries control that most important of natural resources — energy.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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