Eskom’s smouldering love affair with coal shows no sign of cooling
Unless organised labour takes the lead in switching to fossil-free energy, it is virtually guaranteed that nothing will happen
Everyone knows our state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are dysfunctional. But there’s dysfunctionality and then there’s Eskom. Despite the constant search light on Eskom, it still thinks that shadows are available for hiding its activities.
Its attempt to conceal its collusion with Tegeta, via a "private arbitration" settling Tegeta’s R2bn fine, is but this week’s instance of brazenness born of assured political protection; after all, Eskom’s former CEO, despite resigning in disgrace, has been elevated to join all the other hourables in Parliament.
In any event, it is clear that Eskom is wedded to coal and that it will allow nothing to disturb this enduring love affair. Not even its polygamy, for nuclear is part of the government-approved ménage à trois. This is clearly seen in the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2016, for electricity. The draft IRP has been crudely fixed to provide expensive space for nuclear. The government’s cancellation of the signing of the power purchase agreements with the renewable energy companies that had won the competitive tenders to supply the cheapest energy, from any source, is the most recent instance of the government-Eskom love for nuclear.
The National Union of Minerworkers (NUM) has now entered this tangled web. It is defensive of coal and highly critical of renewable energy.
The NUM’s general secretary, David Sipunzi, explains the union’s position in an article, Capitalists’ Plan for Renewable Energy Will Lead to Job Losses’ published on Business Day. His main concern is Eskom’s threat to close five coal-fired power stations. Eskom says this has been forced on it because of unfair advantages enjoyed by renewable energy.
The Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC), where I work, appreciates the NUM’s concerns. Our long association with the NUM and many other Cosatu-affiliated trade unions makes it easy for us to understand workers’ apprehension.
Climate change and the large number of jobs that would be created as a consequence of addressing global warming and its threat to everyone, has been central to AIDC’s collaboration with the unions. It is therefore as an organisation sympathetic to organised labour that AIDC feels able to disagree with a some of the arguments David Sipunzi advances.
His main arguments are below next to bullet points, with my comments following:
• Renewable energy will result in large-scale retrenchments, beginning with the closure of five coal-fired power plants.
The closure of some plants has been public knowledge for a long time. Eskom chose to transform these closures, which are part of long-established normal practice when plants reach the end of their productive lives, into something unexpectedly forced on it by renewable energy. Eskom’s cynical opportunism no longer surprises.
• Renewable energy is considerably more expensive than coal and will cause Eskom’s bankruptcy because the government is forcing Eskom to buy this unaffordable energy.
This claim exposes Eskom’s duplicity. The cost of the renewable energy that the government is seeking to delay for as long as possible is considerably cheaper than coal. No one disputes the cheapness of today’s renewable energy. Eskom simply ignores this; it chooses instead to quote what it pays the few renewable energy companies awarded the first contracts, several years ago.
• Renewable energy cannot replace coal (or nuclear) because neither the sun nor wind are available 24 hours of the day.
This is another of Eskom’s deceptions. Using actual 24-hour measurements across SA’s actual land mass, the government’s own science institute, the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) has shown conclusively that, with the aid of already existing technology, there’s more than enough sun and wind available in SA to provide the minimum electricity needed each day, over the course of a year. This minimum is the "base load" that Eskom wants us to believe only coal and nuclear can provide.
• Eskom does not need renewable energy because it is already producing a surplus.
Despite this claimed surplus, Eskom is happy to share its bed with nuclear energy. Besides, the idea of there being surplus electricity is itself another Eskom mischief. Eskom treats itself as a private company that produces only what it can sell to maximise its profits. Surplus electricity could mean cheaper electricity. Moreover, there are still a very large number of households in 2017 that have no electricity.
• The NUM general secretary is alarmed that the government’s renewable energy programme is based entirely on private companies.
We agree with him. We do so in part because of research AIDC commissioned that details major problems with the socioeconomic aspects of the government’s renewable energy programme.
• There is no social labour plan for renewable energy
Again, we fully agree with him. The government has long recognised the need for a "just transition" towards fossil-free energy. Unless organised labour takes the lead to making this a reality, it is virtually guaranteed that nothing will happen; and that, as usual, the cost of progress will be borne by workers.
• Rudin is with the AIDC