This file photo taken on April 21, 2011 shows a cyclist wearing a protective face mask while riding along a dusty road, where dozens of factories process rare earths, iron and coal operate, on the outskirts of Baotou city in Inner Monglia, northwest China. Picture: AFP/FREDERIC J. BROWN
This file photo taken on April 21, 2011 shows a cyclist wearing a protective face mask while riding along a dusty road, where dozens of factories process rare earths, iron and coal operate, on the outskirts of Baotou city in Inner Monglia, northwest China. Picture: AFP/FREDERIC J. BROWN

The decline in the contribution of the minerals sector to the economy has not been matched by a decline in its influence, most particularly over the energy sector. While the energy policy promulgated in 1998 called for “ensuring that an equitable level of national resources is invested in renewable technologies, given their potential and compared to investments in other energy supply options”, SA is still very far from this goal.

The government has historically not taken renewable resources seriously, relegating them to niche applications beyond the national grid before the splitting of the erstwhile department of minerals and energy about 12 years ago. In that protracted process, energy issues came a distant second to mineral resources, despite the promulgation of the Energy Act of 2008, which appeared to establish a clear mandate and holistic approach for energy development. The sector was no longer tasked simply with “the monetisation of coal” (as the prevailing de facto energy strategy was described by a senior official).

Rather than integrating the minerals sector into the department of trade and industry, another new department was created that continues to promote increasing the use of coal regardless of its merits among the range of abundant resource options available to SA. The assumption that if we have it we must use it is also applied to other fossil fuels, even though both the resource and the economic potentials remain speculative.

In a panel discussion earlier in 2019, the mineral resources minister rejected any consideration of curtailing the use of coal, or differentiating the value proposition for coal from other mining activities.

The Minerals Council SA also fails to recognise the difference in impacts between coal and other mining, or, more tragically, the profound difference in the consequences of the use of their output. Such denial may prolong local coal combustion but will not prevent a serious decline in exports well before 2030.

SA is rich in the minerals that are required in great quantity for developing a clean and sustainable energy system, but its potential to become a leading player in the inevitable transition to renewable energy use is hampered by a fatalistic, irrational attachment to coal.

Henceforth, the only reason for using coal for electricity generation is the extent to which it is entrenched because Eskom depends on it

SA’s extensive deposits of fossilised biomass should be appreciated as carbon sequestration: keeping vast quantities of greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere, a precondition for the climate that has supported human development until now. That this sequestered carbon, much of which is underpinning some of SA’s most productive agricultural lands, is in a form that can be burnt or processed into liquids for burning, does not make doing so a good idea, or a net source of value to society.

The value society has derived from the use of fossil fuels is not the issue. Since the adoption of the energy act we have developed a detailed understanding of how much more abundant SA’s renewable energy potential is than was suggested in previous assessments.

There has also been a profound shift in technology costs and capabilities and therewith a huge opening for expanding the use of electricity — currently providing less than a third of SA’s energy at the point of use. Henceforth, the only reason for using coal for electricity generation is the extent to which it is entrenched because Eskom depends on it.

The national energy system as a whole must be developed and governed in the public interest or it will be the death of us. The electricity system has to be rescued, but not necessarily all the vested interests embedded in it. Early retirement of some coal-fired power plants is already proceeding (and the nuclear plant is being refurbished for life extension).

Integrated energy planning

The most cost-effective options are renewable energy and storage. Lamenting our “path dependence” on coal due to the nature of existing infrastructure is too often used to distract from the financial interests of investors still assuming utterly inadequate climate change mitigation, even as this has become cost-negative for electricity supply.

The fact that the energy department has failed to undertake integrated energy planning as mandated in the energy act is deplorable, but not a reason to give up on it. The cabinet as a whole has failed to get behind integrated planning, preferring opportunistic pursuit of particular industrial initiatives, or packaging investment opportunities. Recognition of the interdependence of food, water and energy security in the National Development Plan has not translated into a holistic approach to development, or the assessment of economic success.

However strong the case is for reducing the number of ministers or distinct departments, any suggestion that energy may again be rendered subservient to mineral resources must be rejected. Both capacity and governance need to be strengthened in the department of energy and all provisions of the 2008 act should be implemented.

Appointing an energy minister with a clear understanding of the ecological dimensions of the energy system, including climate change, and with no connection to the coal industry, would be a great service to the nation and particularly its children.

• Worthington, a civil society activist on climate and sustainable energy, is a project manager for the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. He writes in his personal capacity.