/ 9 May 2024

Creecy: Komati power station not a good test case for just energy transition

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Lessons have been learned, the minister told a debate on the just energy transition. (Ozayr Patel/M&G)

Eskom’s decommissioning of the Komati coal-fired power station was not a “good test case” for South Africa’s energy transition, said Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Minister Barbara Creecy.

Creecy, a member of the ANC’s national executive committee, was speaking this week at a debate on the climate crisis between the governing party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), organised by WWF South Africa and aired on SAfm. 

The minister was referring to the plant’s closure in October 2022, when it was transformed into a wind and solar production energy site. 

“What we found in the Komati situation was that although workers directly employed in that coal-fired power station were shifted to other [similar] stations — and so they did not lose their jobs — what was not taken into account in that transition was the broader ecosystem that was dependent on that power station.

“And so, one found that those people who supplied meals … those who were service providers to Komati, those are the enterprises and individuals that have suffered through the closure of that power station.” 

What had been learnt from Komati’s example was that long before there is talk of decommissioning coal-fired power plants, there have to be discussions about “front-loading, alternative industries, alternative training and retraining” and the proper involvement of not only labour unions but of local organisations, the minister said.

This is so people can identify new economic opportunities and mobilise finances and not only be workers in those industries but become owners of new forms of technology and industry. 

“The whole way we are approaching the transition through the Just Energy Transition Investment Plan is now about saying, ‘Let’s do the research on finding the alternative industries, let’s set them up; let’s front-load the social relief and the skills training way ahead of the decommissioning process.’”

EFF MP Nazier Paulsen said that Komati should have been a “venture into experimenting with clean coal” technologies. 

But clean coal has been slated as a myth and smokescreen by environmental organisations.

“There’s no such thing as clean coal,” Paulsen conceded, “but what we do is to capture the carbon emissions to reduce emissions into the atmosphere, making the environment a lot more palatable than what it was at the time, so we could have in that way, kept running Komati.” 

“It was running efficiently, producing the necessary energy that we needed and creating jobs. For the ANC to have just gone to shut [Komati] down is their response to demands from foreign governments for us to switch over from coal to renewables.”

‘Ambitious targets’

The ANC takes climate change seriously and has done so for the past 30 years, Creecy said, noting that under its leadership, the government has signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol in 2002 and, more recently, the 2015 Paris Agreement.

In 2023, the government submitted a revised nationally determined contribution (NDC) — its climate action plan to cut emissions and adapt to climate effects — with “ambitious targets” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to build a climate-resilient and inclusive society and economy. 

“Our party aims to balance environmental sustainability with economic development and social equity and as we reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build resilience and adaptive capacity; we aim to do so in a manner that does not leave vulnerable workers and communities behind and also does not undermine energy security,” the minister said. 

The government had put in place the architecture to both mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change on people, infrastructure, food and water. 

Creecy said the “proof of the pudding is really in the evidence” and the recently published draft ninth national greenhouse gas inventory report for South Africa indicated that current country emissions are below the 2°C average temperature increase, which is included in the Paris Agreement. 

“But more work and a lot more finance will be required to reduce emissions and make a fair share contribution to holding global average temperature increase at the 1.5°C mark, an increase that science tells us is preferable to the average temperature increase of 2°C.”

Creecy added that the ANC is committed to mobilising finances and “working for the change” both locally and internationally to ensure that “we can reach the lower temperature goal and transition our economy in a just and sustainable and inclusive way”.

The electricity crisis in the country has put a hold on the progress into decommissioning coal-fired power plants. “[This is] because what we clearly understand is that we cannot undermine energy security because of the impact that it has on the economy. 

“However, we are within the NDC [aim] of reducing greenhouse gases that we have submitted to the United Nations and we intend to remain within the 2025 target and in due course, within the 2030 target.”

Creating ‘prosumers’

DA MP Dave Bryant said his party had made significant strides towards developing climate change legislation in the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape, pointing out that the strategy was developed by the City of Cape Town in 2017 while the provincial government had updated its climate strategy in 2022. 

“We have very sophisticated frameworks that we’ve put together, including resilience strategies to deal with upcoming shocks and stressors not only from climate change but from other associated issues.” 

For the city, the DA has plans to create “prosumers”, Bryant said. “These are individuals who have existing renewable energy capacity in their homes and businesses — solar panels in most instances — and making sure that we cut the red tape and develop legislation so that they are able to feed that energy back into the grid.” 

This would reduce electricity and energy demand, and simultaneously cut carbon emissions. 

“We have many similar plans and strategies that are in place in the City of Cape Town,” Bryant added.

There needed to be more involvement from the private sector in the energy transition. 

“We believe that Eskom should be unbundled and we’ve been saying that for a very long time, to create space for more roleplayers from the private sector to enter,” he said.

“One of the things that we’re going to commit to as the DA if we are able to form the centre of a new national government is to review and to streamline the restrictive regulations that are currently limiting both the public and the private and public sector in terms of more rapid procurement in new renewable energy generation and capacity.”

Climate opportunity

The climate transition is an important economic opportunity for the country, Creecy said.

The ANC’s manifesto commits the country to an industrialisation path and the growth of new manufacturing sectors and sectors such as green hydrogen, battery storage and electric vehicles. 

These are growth and job creation areas across the world.

“We, in our manifesto, are committing ourselves to making South Africa a key opportunity for these types of manufacturing and industrialised industries,” she said. 

“This is obviously very important because as we move away from coal generation and from coal mining over the next 30 years towards our mid-century net-zero commitment, it’s very important that we’re not just creating service-level jobs or expanded public works type of jobs, but we’re actually creating the same kind of quality jobs that exist in the coal value chain at present.”

The EFF’s Paulsen, however, said that the new industries will “require specialised skills that we don’t have at the moment” and which need to be developed. 

“It’s going to be disastrous for the economy of the country. We have to weigh up whether we stick with industries that we have the skills for, or do we build industries that we don’t have skills for and further increase the levels of unemployment?” Paulsen asked.