/ 6 February 2023

Eskom’s De Ruyter calls for phasing out of coal in favour of renewables

Nampak Ltd. Chief Executive Officer Andre De Ruyter Interview
Photo: (Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

In an attempt to find solutions to the energy crisis, Eskom’s outgoing chief executive Andre de Ruyter has urged the government, business leaders and the labour force to take fast and decisive action.

Speaking recently at McCloskey’s Southern Africa Coal Conference in Cape Town, he called for support from the government to swiftly implement energy plans that would alleviate the challenges faced by the utility.

De Ruyter, who is set to vacate his position at the end of March, has been advocating for new power generation that would assist Eskom’s ageing coal fleet.

Eskom has been facing several challenges, including a lack of funding and maintenance of its plants, which has forced it to plunge the country into permanent load-shedding.

This has also increased calls for the utility to be placed under a state of disaster while it searches for a new chief executive.

The utility recently advertised De Ruyter’s post, seven weeks after he resigned, and is yet to interview candidates for the role.

Massive cost

On Monday, minister of mineral resources and energy Gwede Mantashe highlighted the severe impact of load-shedding, saying it cost the country’s economy R1 billion a day.

He said the government had a plan to improve the energy availability factor through the focused, funded and planned maintenance of existing power stations. 

“At the centre of our current energy challenges is the decline in the energy availability factor from an estimated 75% to 49%. Therefore, the most feasible and logical option to exercise to resolve load-shedding is by arresting the decline in the energy availability factor,” said Mantashe. 

The energy availability factor is the percentage of maximum energy generation that a power plant is capable of supplying to the electrical grid.  

De Ruyter said the country should continue with the decommission plan it had for the power stations that have reached the end of their lifecycle. This is in line with the agreement the country made at Cop26 to lessen its carbon footprint.

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, the Just Energy Transition Partnership partners — France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union — pledged $8.5 billion to South Africa.

Last year, South Africa managed to get a $10.7  billion loan agreements with France and Germany, at the conference in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt, to assist Eskom to move away from its reliance on coal.

Coal is unreliable

De Ruyter, however, added that coal was not reliable and Eskom had experienced “significant instances of coal theft”. Loads destined for Eskom are taken from a certified stockpile, but en route to a power station, the loads are diverted to a site where they are replaced with low-quality, discarded coal.

“This has created havoc in our coal supply chain and also at power stations. But we are doing our utmost to turn this around,” De Ruyter said.

He warned that although the just transition would benefit South Africa, it would not be “a walk in the park”.

“Phasing out coal would have an impact on the communities around coal power stations and coal mines and that would have to be mitigated.”

He said reducing reliance on coal power would lessen the country’s emission of pollutants.

De Ruyter added that the solution to the crisis was to get more independent producers online to add more power to the grid.

Impact of a just transition

Although there were fears that the just transition would have an impact on the livelihood of employees in the coal chain, the benefits of using greener sources for power far outweighed the disadvantages of job losses, he said.

Mpumalanga, where most power plants are situated, has the highest unemployment rate in the country, with 48% of the youth in the province jobless.

In the presentation read at the conference, De Ruyter said Eskom was aware of the unemployment records and they were aware that over 29 000 premature deaths in the country every year are caused by air pollution, driven in part by energy poverty, coal beneficiation and coal power plants.

Extensive environmental degradation due to opencast mining, exacerbated by illegal and poorly regulated mining, had continued to worsen the quality of life for residents of the province.

“Coal ash dumps can contaminate the air and ground water and over 270 billion litres of water are used by Eskom each year in our coal-dominant power system,” he said.

Mandisa Nyathi is a climate reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.