It does not have to be a trade-off between jobs and green energy | Fin24

It does not have to be a trade-off between jobs and green energy

Nov 21 2018 10:30
Andile Ntingi

I recently bumped into a childhood friend who told me that he is afraid of losing his job as a truck driver in the coal fields of Limpopo and Mpumalanga, as calls grow for the country to employ cleaner energy sources.

A few days later, Greenpeace described some of those coal sites as some of the worst polluters in the world. 

The environmental activists claimed that Mpumalanga province was the world’s largest emitter of air-polluting nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

The dichotomy of these two positions illustrates the unenviable position in which government and industry find themselves as they try to navigate the concerns of all stakeholders. 

But there is a way out of this seemingly intractable predicament.

As a truck driver, my friend transports coal from mines in Mpumalanga and Limpopo to some of Eskom’s 12 power stations in Mpumalanga, where it is used as fuel to generate nearly 80% of SA’s electricity output. 

Since government started its renewable energy programme in 2011 to reduce our country’s reliance on the NO2-emitting coal-fired power stations, people who earn a living from coal mining and coal transportation have been fearing that they will lose their jobs and businesses due to the rise of renewable power as an alternative energy source to coal.

This frustration was brought to public attention in March last year, when about 2 000 coal transport workers marched to the Presidency in Pretoria to demand that government desist from signing 27 power purchasing agreements linked to bid window 4 of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP). 

My friend was among the protesters who took to the streets after Eskom announced that it would not be renewing contracts with coal transporters and was planning to decommission some of its old coal-fired power stations in Mpumalanga due to a power surplus and the ongoing boarding of the renewable IPPs.

This prompted the strike by truck drivers, who opposed the signing of the 27 projects, arguing it could lead to 30 000 job losses in the coal mining industry. 

The projects were given the green light by government, and will see independent power producers (IPPs) invest R56bn to supply Eskom with 2 300MW of renewable energy. 

The tension between the pro-coal lobbyists and pro-renewable organisations will not go away anytime soon, as neither group is prepared to give ground. 

IPPs say renewables will promote industrialisation and generate employment. 

Moreover, IPPs say solar and wind power is a perfect solution to reversing the effects of climate change and reducing carbon emissions, which the country has committed to cutting by 42% by 2025.

In a stand-off characterised by two diametrically opposed views, the only way around the two extreme opinions is policy certainty on the optimal energy mix for SA, taking into account the interests of all affected parties, not the “winner-takes all” approach that we have seen. 

For too long, the government has failed to be a decisive arbiter between the opposing groups, while you have people whose financial wellbeing is being threatened by policy indecisiveness in a weak, jobs-shedding economy. 

Having said this, I commend energy minister Jeff Radebe for releasing in August the long-awaited updated Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), or the so-called IRP 2018, to try to eliminate the policy quagmire and provide clarity on our energy roadmap for the next decade.

By 2030, government envisages that the country’s energy portfolio will be made up of 34 000MW of coal, roughly 46% of additional electricity output; 11 930MW of gas (16% of capacity); 11 442MW of wind (15%); 7 958MW of photovoltaic (PV, or solar 10%); and 4 696MW of hydropower (6%). 

Based on the IRP 2018 projections, coal will still be responsible for satisfying the bulk of SA’s energy needs, but its contribution to new capacity will be significantly reduced if government sticks to the plan. 

That coal will still be a major contributor to power generation, accounting for 65% of total output, is a recognition that, as a country, we can’t just walk away from this vital resource. 

SA has massive deposits of coal, which can be exploited, going forward, using advanced clean coal technologies (CCTs) that enable more efficient combustion of coal with reduced carbon emissions.

When mining for exportable quality coal, and for coal usable for power generation with old technology, there is tonnes of discarded coal that is smoking on itself. 

When it rains, the coal leaches into the ground, causing unknown environmental dangers. 

Perhaps government, in partnership with the likes of the Fossil Fuel Foundation, should quantify the discarded coal, measure its environmental impact and potential economic value. 

And perhaps Eskom can retrofit or upgrade old power plants with these CCTs (boilers and turbines) to extend their life, thereby delaying job losses and costly investment in new plants.

Retrofitting Eskom’s coal-fired power stations with CCTs makes sense, given that it is under pressure to make its power stations compliant with air quality legislation. 

In time, the economy will recover, triggering an increase in electricity demand. 

This spike in demand will provide an opportunity for rapid integration of new capacity from renewable IPPs.

But in the meantime, it is important that government considers extending the life of some Eskom power stations to save jobs. 

Andile Ntingi is the chief executive and co-founder of GetBiz, an e-procurement and tender notification service.

This article originally appeared in the 22 November edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.