/ 7 March 2023

Mantashe defends the continued use of coal at Africa Energy Indaba

South Africa's Mineral Resources And Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe Looks On During A News Conference In Pretoria
Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe

Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe on Tuesday reaffirmed his position on coal when he urged delegates at the Africa Energy Indaba in Cape Town not to neglect fossil fuels on the continent.

His day started with environmental activists urging him to end coal-fired electricity and to stop blocking renewable energy.

Greenpeace Africa spokesperson Thandile Chinyavanhu said their decision to demonstrate during the minister’s speech was to convey the message that coal is blocking the shift to renewable energy and that Mantashe is a “coal fundamentalist”.

“There is a danger in using coal as an energy source, including health problems. We are demanding that the government brings online renewable energy to ease the constraints of load-shedding and deploy them for energy security,” she said.

Mantashe said that solving South Africa’s energy crisis will require improving the energy availability factor of power stations, accelerating the acquisition of emergency energy and focusing on building skills. The focus, he said, should not be on turning away from coal.

“Coal will be with us for many years to come, those who see it as a road to corruption will be disappointed for many years. Coal is going to outlive many of us,” he said.

Mantashe’s comment comes after former Eskom chief executive André de Ruyter, in an explosive eNCA interview, flagged corruption, theft and sabotage that has contributed to extensive load-shedding. It resulted in De Ruyter being dismissed immediately, rather than working through his notice period, and attacks on his character. 

Mantashe noted that the energy transition should be just for multiple people dependent on the coal value chain for their livelihoods. He said Africa is well positioned to benefit from the just energy transition, because it is endowed with minerals suitable for green energy production.

‘We must make use of our minerals’

“Many of the people who are demonstrating think we must not mine because we are tampering with the environment. But those minerals are important to move from high carbon emissions to low carbon emissions,” Mantashe said. “The mining of minerals like vanadium and lithium, useful for battery storage, and platinum, useful for the production of green hydrogen, should be allowed.”

He added that many wealthy countries were using coal and other fossil fuels to fortify their electricity supply but did not want African countries to do the same.

“What we cannot afford to lose sight of in this just energy transition discourse is the fact that Africa is the least polluter compared to the developed continents,” he said.

The United Nations climate agreements at the climate change conference in Egypt last year and COP26 in Scotland in 2021, that countries reduce carbon emissions and build resilience against the adverse effects of climate change.

Mantashe said African countries should embrace gas-to-power technologies because they would provide the flexibility needed to complement intermittent renewable energy and to meet demand during peak hours. These include hydrogen and Karpowerships, which use gas to generate electricity. Environmentalists have objected to the Karpowerships application on the grounds that it contributes to carbon emissions, harms marine ecology and fishing, and would tie South Africa into a 20-year contract.

Mantashe said natural gas could improve the efficiencies of many industries using renewable energy, diesel and relying on Eskom’s grid in their production processes. He said natural gas is affordable and attainable because Mozambique can provide enough gas for South Africa at a cheaper price.

He added that gas is more affordable than diesel and it emits less carbon monoxide.

Eskom has used diesel for its open-cycle gas turbines to ease load-shedding to prevent the grid shutting down.

De Ruyter has said that gas would be expensive, and require more energy to transport. 

The Mail & Guardian reported in February last year that Gabrielle Knott, specialist gas attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights, said the move towards gas was “misguided in alleging that gas is a cleaner fuel source” that will reduce pollution. “The extracting, transporting and burning of gas gives rise to significant harmful emissions and impacts,” she said.

In 2021, the department published its gas master plan, which establishes baseline information for the natural gas sector.

Gas accounts for 2.6% of the national energy mix; the department aims to raise this to 15.7% by 2030 in line with its latest Integrated Resource Plan for energy.

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