/ 10 February 2024

Tour of Komati power station reveals dilemmas

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Pivoting: Journalists were able to visit the Komati decommissioned power station, which must now be repurposed with solar and other renewables. (Ozayr Patel/M&G)

The story of Eskom’s Komati power station in Mpumalanga is a tale that’s been told. 

As part of the country’s climate commitments, South Africa has agreed to decommission its coal power stations. 

The country ranks as the worst carbon emitter on the continent and is in the top 20 of the worst polluters globally. 

As agreed with international partners, through various funding initiatives, the country has embarked on a move to decommission its coal power stations in a move to adopt more renewable energy.

Komati is the first of these stations to be decommissioned. At the Mail & Guardian, we’ve covered what that means for the people — the community of Komati. 

In a nutshell, it means job losses. But, as part of the just energy transition partnership, the goal is to have these people reskilled, to train them in other sectors, so they can earn a living. 

Last week, as part of a course on net zero — South Africa’s efforts to move to no carbon emissions — and data journalism, I was taken on a field trip to Komati. The course was facilitated by Internews and the Earth Journalism Network. 

I got to see first-hand what a decommissioned power station looks like and I spoke to the people at Eskom who manage the just transition. I got to pick their brains on the just energy transition and what it was really like in Komati. 

Here’s what I learnt.

Mpumalanga is South Africa’s coal belt. Twelve of the country’s 15 power stations in the region. 

Driving to Komati in sweltering heat, we hit the potholed road early in the morning. The pollution coming from the various stations was glaringly obvious — quite jarring on what would otherwise be a pretty landscape. 

Trucks transporting coal to various power stations filled the roads, making for a spasmodic journey. 

When we arrived in Komati it had a somewhat dystopian feel, spaza shops bare, the odd person walking on the streets.

When we sat down with Eskom’s Komati leadership we were told the story of the transition, how it had shaped up, mistakes made and the lessons learnt. 

Thevan Pillay, the acting general manager of the station, made a presentation on what the station was doing to transition to renewables, the training they were embarking on and the concerns they had. 

He was surprisingly candid.

“The just transition is a bit of a sore point for us here at Komati — we are coal men,” he started by saying. 

Despite the sadness they feel, he said it was exciting too. 

He explained that the Komati community consists of 5 000 to  6 000 people. A fully functioning Komati that is producing coal gives jobs to 3 000 to 4 000 people in the community, either through permanent employment or contract work. 

That number has dwindled since it has been decommissioned. There are very few people employed now. 

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Some workers who are now unemployed run a small aquaponic farming project.

Komati has a capability of 1 000 megawatts. When it was shut down it was producing about 150MW. That doesn’t detract from what its capability was. 

It was made to shut down — the team had to vandalise it to shut it down properly and therefore it couldn’t produce to its capabilities. Parts would be moved on to power stations that needed them.

There are plans in place to have it produce 150MW of solar, 150MW battery and 70MW of wind but this is not guaranteed. 

Also at Komati is an aquaponic farm and various training centres, including a welding workshop which is set to start training people in April. 

As part of the World Bank loan, the station has three mandates: 

• The decommissioning of the Komati plant ($33.5 million — about R634 million); 

• Repurposing the project area with hybrid renewables — solar, wind, batteries and a synchronous condenser ($416 million); and

•  Minimising the socio-economic effects of the plant closure and creating opportunities for workers and communities ($47.5 million).

There are obvious reasons for the community to feel hard done-by. They are working on getting various people in the community employment and training. There are around 218 people employed in various contract work, with the goal of employing 168 more over the coming years.

The various training initiatives will also lead to future employment for people. One of those is welding. Eskom has previously imported welders from Pakistan, so there is clearly a skills shortage. 

Various people are employed in clearing invasive alien plants and in the mining sector. People are also being trained to construct solar systems on rooftops, which they can hopefully use for future employment. 

What Pillay clearly stated was that Komati is famous for being a test site. It is being used to test how the just transition will shape up. 

The building of the solar plant faced delays. This was due to needing an environmental impact assessment, which they were late to get. 

It found that the plant would cause harm to the local bat population, wetlands and other critical biodiversity. He was clear that they were facing obstacles they had not anticipated. 

Once all the licences are obtained, construction of the solar plant can take shape. This should see around 3 000 people employed for the duration of construction. 

Transitioning was much harder than they anticipated. While he acknowledged that coal stations globally are being decommissioned, none have a situation like Komati, where almost 6 000 people rely on the station. 

Most of these stations shut down with no transition needed. 

It’s not a simple process and one that requires massive amounts of planning. In the discussions, Pillay stated that it would take about eight years to make sure the transition is done properly. This was something they had only realised recently.  

He said economic diversity needed  to have been created earlier. To do this effectively, local government and the local municipality must also be involved. They need to play an active role in seeking employment opportunities for the community. 

Proper planning would mean that employment could be created in construction, waste management, assembling of inverters, batteries, microgrids and other such initiatives. 

For now, the best they could do was ensure that interim employment was found for people. 

There were also training initiatives taking place to ensure that people were reskilled to find employment in other parts of Eskom and the broader energy sector. 

Daphne Mokwena, group spokesperson, echoed these sentiments saying, “The just transition was never going to happen overnight. There is plenty to do and learn.”

Mokwena added that a major part of the transition was to ensure people didn’t rely on an employer. They needed to be trained in a way that made them employable and so they could be upskilled. 

The lessons learnt at Komati would  be used at other power stations, such as Lethabo. The major lesson learnt was that timelines must be realistic. 

During the tour of Komati, we were taken into the nine units. It was fascinating to see how they worked. 

The coolers were also fascinating in how they dealt with the coal after it had been used. 

On the trip, we were shown the mini aquaponic farm, which produces fish, vegetables and fruit. 

What was interesting to see was a containerised micro-grid. This is a container with solar panels, batteries and an inverter. It costs around R2 million to set up and can power around 60 homes. 

The team can monitor it remotely and it is used in Northern Cape. 

Eskom is exploring rolling it out as a means of making money. But that’s a story for another day.

My takeaway from the experience is that the people at Komati genuinely care for the community. They were honest about their failures and lessons learnt. The transition is a lot more difficult than it seems. 

My heart bleeds for the people of Komati who will reel as the transition plods along. 

The country is in a tough place. Make the planet more liveable by getting rid of coal — but at what cost? At the cost of livelihoods and a sustainable life for vulnerable people.