/ 23 June 2022

Eskom: Mpumalanga a renewable energy hub

Gettyimages 1231511490
Natural resources: Wind turbines in Gouda in the Cape Winelands district municipality. Mpumalanga has good wind and sun for renewable energy initiatives. Photo: Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg/Gallo Images

Eskom wants to drive investment in renewable energy capacity to Mpumalanga because this is where the worst harm will be felt as a consequence of the energy transition from coal, according to its chief executive, André de Ruyter.

“This is critical if we want to make this inevitable energy transition a just one,” he said in his keynote address at the virtual launch of a new documentary, Voices From Under a Dark Cloud: Towards a Just Transition In the Coalfields of South Africa, on Tuesday. “People very glibly talk about the just energy transition and very few pay adequate attention to how to enable this transition to be just.”

The documentary, which is part of a joint initiative by Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies, the National Labour and Economic Institute, groundWork and Peta Wolpe, casts a spotlight on what a shift from coal means in reality for the affected people and the future of Mpumalanga, which is home to 12 of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations and most of South Africa’s coal mines.

Shutting down power plants

Eskom’s fleet of coal-fired power stations are rapidly approaching their end of life, De Ruyter said. “The average age of our power stations, excluding Medupi and Kusile, is now in the region of 43 years. Plants have been run very hard, poorly maintained and they are in need of significant investment to become compliant with the increasingly stringent minimum emission standards to the tune of some R300-million,” which is money the indebted power utility does not have, he said.

Eskom has a strategy to bring forward the shutdown dates of some of its power stations, which are “simply becoming uneconomical” to operate. It plans to retire 11 gigawatts of stored capacity and a further 11GW by 2035 — about 47% of its coal-fired capacity.

“What this will do is it will reduce our carbon emissions by a whopping 62%. This initiative will make a major contribution to the decarbonisation of the South African economy,” De Ruyter said. But electricity is the lifeblood of any modern industrial economy “so we need to find a replacement for this capacity”.

This is where new generation capacity comes in. He said Eskom’s calculations show it needs to create about 50GW to 60GW of new generation capacity over the period in which the power plants are decommissioned, coupled with expansions to its storage capacity, transmission grids of 8 000km and strengthening the expansion of its distribution grid. The electricity supply industry requires “a tall order” of about R1.2-trillion in new investment by 2035.

Transition ‘inevitable’

“Now, what is inevitable is the transition. That is clear. The costs of renewable energy have come down very markedly. We see a significant acceleration of the global trend towards decarbonisation. Of course, this has been held up by events in Ukraine. But we certainly see this as an irreversible trend.”

If South Africa wants to maintain its competitiveness and avoid the imposition of a carbon border tax, as contemplated by the European Union from next year onwards, “we definitely need to accelerate efforts to decarbonise our electricity industry very substantially”, said De Ruyter.

The country’s best wind and solar resources are in the Northern Cape but are poorly served by the transmission grid. “We therefore have to expand our transmission grid by building 101 major new substations and build about 8 000km of new grid over the next decade. But because we don’t have the luxury of time, we need to create access to the grid far sooner.”

There is a “remarkable and very serendipitous confluence of circumstances” in Mpumalanga, the country’s energy and petrochemical hub, “therefore we have this opportunity to leverage our existing transmission grid. As we shut down coal-fired power stations, we can increasingly use the grid capacity that is made available by providing access to renewable energy investments in the province.”

De Ruyter said this is a “great enabler” of a just energy transition. “With respect to the Northern Cape, there aren’t too many unemployed coal miners wandering the streets of Upington. So, we wish to drive investment in new generation capacity — renewable energy capacity — towards Mpumalanga because that is where the biggest negative impact will be as a consequence of the energy transition. This is critical if we want to make this inevitable transition a just one.” 

He said the province has three elements that make it an attractive investment destination. “First of all, it’s got the grid and it is arguably the key enabler to accelerate our transition towards a lower carbon economy. Mpumalanga has that existing infrastructure in place right now and more of that will become available as we retire our coal-fired power stations.”

Significant renewable resources

Mpumalanga, too, has substantial renewable energy resources. “For a long time the conventional wisdom was that Mpumalanga doesn’t have sunshine, it doesn’t have wind. And consequently there was a lot of pressure from the IPP [Independent Power Producer] industry to expand the transmission grid to the Northern Cape, which we will still do. However, given the time pressure on us to accelerate the introduction of grid access, Mpumalanga is a natural candidate to do exactly that.” 

Recent studies have shown that Mpumalanga is “blessed” with significant wind resources. “We’ve recently come into new data that confirms this and we are absolutely delighted that the the wind industry is seizing on this opportunity and we ourselves are looking at a 70 megawatt wind farm in the vicinity of our Komati power station, which is going to be the first to be shut down permanently as of September this year.

“Furthermore, the solar resources in Mpumalanga are some of the best in the world. While they’re not quite as good as the Northern Cape, they’re certainly far better than anything offered in Europe.”

The third element, arguably the most important, is people and skills. “People are very well trained in Mpumalanga and typically have had experience of working in industry, either mining or manufacturing. And there is a significant human capital base that is accessible and available to be employed,” said De Ruyter.

Life at the coalface

The documentary highlights some of the issues, opportunities and difficulties that people in Mpumalanga — particularly in the eMalahleni and Steve Tshwete municipalities — face as coal is phased out. It builds on webinars and discussions held over the past 18 months so that people affected by coal-fired energy and the transition away from it could be heard.

The consortium said these people are reliant on coal-based economic activities.

The documentary’s director, Joelle Chesselet, said they sought to capture as many voices of people who are involved in “daily life at the coalface and at the coalfields of our energy generation in the country”. 

“We tried to give a prism to look at this intense situation … You’lll see that these different actors and impacted people all have some kind of voice in this 30-minute film. I don’t feel it’s a sufficient exposition of the problem but I think it probably does convey the complexity, the challenge, the catch-22, of the situation in South Africa, and probably on the planet in general.”