/ 1 August 2023

Komati residents fired up over Ramokgopa’s remarks

Kgosientsho Ramakgopa
Electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramakgopa. (Theana Breugem/Foto24/Gallo Images)

People living near the Komati power station, are calling for it to be reopened, after Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa’s recent assertion that it should not have been decommissioned.

Speaking to the Mail and Guardian, councillor Edward Nyambi of the Steve Tshwete municipality said the minister’s words had sparked an interest in the community who are demanding it be reopened.

“The minister’s words gave the people of Komati hope — now they are saying even the minister agrees with us that the plant should be opened because coal is the future. They are calling for the plant to continue to burn coal. Even coal suppliers are very interested, they tell me,” he said.

The residents of the town said they were excited that the minister had finally heard their appeal and asked for the plant to be reopened.

After it was closed down, the town faced an economic downturn as businesses and workers moved away to find better opportunities.

Desperate residents see restarting the station as a way to get the town up and running again and as a solution to the high levels of unemployment in the town.

Siphesihle Zungu, a former Eskom contractor, said: “We have been saying that the green energy things will not work. Look, we are going for a year now and there hasn’t been any action in that place. 

“While we sit here being hungry, the plant would have continued while they trained and the transition would’ve been smooth, but now we are waiting and not sure if we can wait any longer,” she said.

Training underway

Eskom employees have started to be trained on the transition to renewable energy, which has been widely welcomed by various stakeholders. However, Komati residents are questioning how it would benefit them.

Concern has also spread to other Eskom plants that are set to be shut down as they reach the end of their operating life.

Last week, Ramokgopa claimed Komati was decommissioned “because someone gave us money and said decarbonise”, adding that alternative sources of energy that have been brought online have failed to compensate for the loss of coal-fired generation at Komati.

Ramokgopa, who was speaking at a Standard Bank conference last week, said if it was up to him he would reopen Komati.

“If I had my way, we’d go and restart Komati. We closed a power station which was the best-performing station at the time and because someone gave us money and told us to decarbonise it,” he said. 

He added: “I am short of 1 000 megawatts that should be reducing one stage of load-shedding. We have international obligations but, I’m sorry, we have an obligation to the South African people,” he said. 

The Komati power station, just south of Middelburg, was decommissioned last October after more than 60 years of service. Its end of life coincides with the start of South Africa’s ambitious just-energy transition (JET). The country is looking to move away from coal as an energy source to renewable energy in a fair and equitable way and leaving no one behind.

This includes shutting down all of its 12 coal-fired power stations and transforming them into renewable projects.

The plan for the Komati power station is to repurpose and repower the plant with renewables through a $500 million funding facility from the World Bank and partners.

The plant ‘had to be closed’

However, Eskom argued that the minister was incorrect and the closure of the coal-fired station was due to its age. Over the years, units had been closed as they had reached the end of their operating life.

“The shutting down of the plant will not have a significant impact on the national electricity grid as the remaining unit was only contributing 121MW,” Eskom said.

The Presidential Climate Commission criticised Ramokgopa’s statement arguing that, according to scientific research, restarting the station would be against the promise to decarbonise and it undermined the government’s Just Energy Transition Investment Plan. 

Responding to questions, the Presidential Climate Commission said the closure of the plant was in line with extensive consultations with all stakeholders. 

“The commissioners made observations on various aspects of the decommissioning, the repurposing projects, the impact on the community, the concerns and dissatisfaction of workers, the consultation process, amongst others.”

It added that the commission would soon release its recommendations on how a just transition would look for the station and the people living near to it.

“We reiterate that the Presidential Climate Commission recommendations on electricity planning and the science-based, economically sound and environmentally sustainable remains what should drive the energy generation mix,” they said.

There are plans to introduce 220MW of green power as well as to train community members and Eskom staff in renewable energy and other skills that will enhance their employability outside the fossil-fuel industry. 

This includes a mini solar plant; construction and installation of a battery energy-storage system; a micro-grid assembly plant; aquaponics; agrivoltaics and construction of a training centre.

This is part of the landmark JET Partnership, finalised at COP26 in Scotland in 2021, where wealthy countries pledged $8.5 billion in funding to help the country move away from coal.

The plan to transition Komati put the power station in the spotlight, as its repurposing and repowering project was to pave the way for South Africa’s transition.

The conflicting signals coming from the government have further increased the uncertainty about what will happen in the town and to the plant.

Residents say they are waiting for a report by German experts commissioned by the treasury and another report by the National Energy Crisis Committee, which will help to settle the future of Komati.

The reports are expected to clarify what the government will do, with set timelines for the station, as well as suggest how to improve the town using renewable energy.

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