As the world moves away from coal and towards green power technologies, SA finds itself in distinct danger of failing to realise a just energy transition.

Renewable energy provided 70% of all new net energy globally in 2017 and total investment in green power now tallies more than $300bn. There are 179 countries with renewable power targets and 57 of those have committed to their power mix becoming 100% renewable.

“This is not just because of climate change or the environment. It’s mainly driven now by the fact that renewables is just a damn good business deal,” said Mark Swilling, a professor at Stellenbosch University’s centre for complex systems in transition. He was speaking at an energy dialogue co-hosted by Nedbank and EE Publishers this week.

Inevitable as the transition to a low carbon economy might be, SA is woefully unprepared to grab the opportunities presented by the green power revolution.

Mike Levington, MD of Kabi Energy, says there is a lot of confusion rather than consensus as to what a just energy transition in fact is.

The terms have centered around saving coal jobs and regional economies, but “in my view it needs to become something just as relevant to an agricultural worker around Vryburg who is suffering because of drought there as it is to a mineworker”, Levington says.

Zwelinzima Vavi, general-secretary of the SA Federation of Trade Unions, says while some unions will interpret it very narrowly around the immediate interest of workers, “others from the progressive side believe a just transition should refer to a broader and deeper social economic transformational or societal shift to a sustainable low carbon economy or a zero carbon world over a period of time, not overnight”.

But whether the transition will indeed be just, depends very much on the direction the renewable energy revolution takes, says Swilling, who believes it is not going the right way.

“As markets, financial flows and technology start to align to give rise to a new energy system, essentially a capitalist energy system, which may not end up in a just transition,” he says.

Having conducted extensive research on renewable power projects in SA, many of them developed under the government’s green power programme, Swilling says he is unhappy with the implementation.

“We think some of the criticisms of the unions — that this represents a kind of privatisation move of energy — has certain validity. We are missing the opportunities for public and social ownership of renewables in a way that is far more inclusive than what is happening now,” he says.

Levington notes there is no coherent plan for a just energy transition in SA.

“You don’t see any bottom-up plans that says to a coal worker at Hendrina this is where you will be going, this is how you will be trained, this is the interventions you will see as part of a just energy transition plan.”

It helps explain why the World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition index has ranked SA 114th out of 115 economies in measuring progress in the global energy transition, he says.

Swilling says a change in thinking, as well as an alternative to the corporate-driven model, is needed.  Otherwise, “there will be a build-up of opposition, there will be increasing concerns with the extraction of surplus and profits into other countries and that is going to undermine the serious potential, especially in light of concerns in jobs lost in the coal sector”.

Swilling believes municipalities should seriously consider owning green power infrastructure as it is consistent with the trend internationally.

Levington, meanwhile, says there should be space for everyone to play a role. “I think there’s room for all, but it’s important not to get pushed in one particular direction.”

Vavi says any ownership model must not entrench the existing patterns of the economy but rather seek to reverse them, given SA’s extraordinary developmental challenges.

“We are on a knife-edge,” he says.