Dr Alex Lenferna is a campaigner with 350Africa.org. Cleopatra Shezi is an organiser with United Front Greater Johannesburg. They are co-facilitators of the Climate Justice Coalition’s Energy and Mining Justice Task Team.
On 2 June, Minister Gwede Mantashe signed power purchase agreements for new solar and storage power plants, as part of his Department of Mineral Resources and Energy’s (DMRE) emergency power programme. Sadly, what might seem on its face to be good news, is a worrying sign that load shedding is set to deepen.
As residents of South Africa are painfully aware, 2022 is on track to be our worst year of load shedding ever. Our badly ageing, poorly maintained coal plants are not keeping up with South Africa’s demand for energy. Eskom, for its part, has put out a code red saying that it urgently needs additional new energy supply to prevent load shedding from worsening in the near future.
Compared to what Eskom needs to solve its code red, Mantashe’s flagship emergency power procurement program is failing. The program has seen three delays to its “non-negotiable” deadline of July 2021. After all those delays, last week’s newly signed solar projects represented a tiny 150MW of the 2,000MW the program was supposed to deliver.
By comparison, Eskom’s current supply gap is between 4,000 MW and 6,000 MW. Eskom also needs to retire 22,000 MW of badly ageing coal generation capacity over the next 13 years, if not more. So, by the time the new solar projects come online, they will only meet around 3% of the current energy supply gap and 0.5% of the future energy supply gap we face.
One big obstacle to Mantashe’s emergency program has been the corruption allegations around the powership projects, which make up the majority of the program. Apart from being snared in legal and environmental challenges, the polluting powerships are also proving to be uneconomic, especially with gas prices so high and so volatile.
Rather than throwing in the towel on the failed powerships, Mantashe seems dead set on pushing it through. One wonders if it has to do with who will benefit from the R200-billion-plus project. Whatever the motivation, the result is that we have a stalled emergency energy program that may never see the majority of its proposed projects come to light.
Sadly, that’s not the only energy plan that Mantashe’s DMRE is failing to deliver on. The DMRE is also failing to deliver on its outdated Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) of 2019, which is meant to determine new energy that should be bought online in South Africa. Even before it was written, the IRP was out of date.
The IRP aims to build lots of polluting, outdated, and/or expensive projects, such as new coal, gas and nuclear. Most of those would take many years to come online, leaving us stuck with load shedding well into the future. That is, if they ever get built in the face of cheaper renewables. If they do get built though, many are likely to be white elephants, with a similar fate to Medupi, which has driven up energy prices and is projected to never turn a profit.
Meanwhile, renewable energy, the fastest, cleanest and most affordable solution to our energy crisis, was constrained under the IRP. Worse still, the very limited renewable build that the IRP allowed is languishing in the face of the DMRE’s failures and slowness. The DMRE has not successfully added a single new publicly procured megawatt to the grid since Mantashe’s appointment in 2019, apart from those in the pipeline from his predecessor.
The DMRE’s energy plans and emergency plans are both failing to deliver. The result is that our energy supply gap is likely to grow, making load shedding worse in the years to come. According to a recent report by Meridian Economics, it could get as bad as stage 6 or 8. We are in a deep emergency.
So, we need a real emergency plan and to implement it yesterday
We could learn from the US, which just invoked its Defense Production Act to rapidly roll out renewable energy. In the next few years, they will build enough domestic solar manufacturing capacity to power 3.3 million new homes with solar a year. That will be coupled with programs to insulate buildings, install efficient heat pumps, upgrade grid infrastructure, drive green industrialisation and more.
Similarly, in the face of the Ukraine-Russia war-induced global energy crisis, the EU has rolled out an emergency plan to rapidly develop renewable energy. In the next three years, they will bring online hundreds of gigawatts of renewables, drive clean industrialisation, and implement energy efficiency measures across their economy. These are the sorts of plans needed to move an economy into the 21st century and respond to a global energy crisis.
South Africa desperately needs a similar emergency plan. A recent study by the Centre for Sustainability Transitions showed that with the right leadership and policies, load shedding could be a thing of the past within two years. What’s needed is a rapid, large-scale roll-out of renewable energy and storage, and the infrastructure needed to support it. Doing so would also lower energy costs, drastically reduce pollution and create tens of thousands of new jobs.
Such a vision is a central element of what South Africa’s Climate Justice Coalition has called for in our campaign for a Green New Eskom. Last year, across the country, the coalition protested in favour of a Green New Eskom and for transformation of the DMRE. Mantashe responded by threatening lawsuits and spreading wild conspiracies that the coalition is a “foreign force”.
Mantashe’s unhinged response reveals his hostility both to the people he is supposed to serve and to the solutions needed to solve this crisis. Clearly if we are to get this emergency under control, we need someone new leading our energy future.
That’s why the Climate Justice Coalition is calling on the president to replace Mantashe as part of an emergency program, to fix the DMRE and to end the load shedding crisis.
We must remove from power those who are driving us into deepening darkness, worsening pollution and rising energy costs. We desperately need a new leader and an emergency plan to tackle our interconnected energy and climate crisis. DM/MC