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Conspiracy theories and uninformed gossip thrive on crises. Take SA’s energy crisis for example. Persistent blackouts for 14 years are blamed on a rotisserie of excuses, from wet coal and poor maintenance to corruption, sabotage and unprotected strikes.

Fixing the crisis is similarly afflicted. Repairing the damage done by the inept and corrupt will take interminably long; we can’t afford to stop using coal because it will break the economy; renewable energy is not the solution because it won’t supply baseload needs when the sun is down and wind is not blowing. Not to mention the ideological tug-of-war between those who demand that energy production is privatised and those who regard such talk as revolutionary surrender. Thus has our crisis continued. 

Setting the just transition in motion is not surrender; it is progress. The very term “just transition” speaks to the protection of jobs in the coal sector by helping workers develop alternative skills. This is not an overnight job. We need to hear some urgency from the president about actually beginning the process.

Besides crises being fertile ground for conspiracies, they also come with opportunities. When something is broken it creates an opportunity to fix it. In response to SA upping its international commitment to reduce the discharge of carbon pollution by 2030 ahead of the COP26 climate talks last year, an International Partners Group comprising France, Germany, the UK, the US, and the EU signed a political declaration with SA that included an offer of $8.5bn in climate finance to support the transition from coal to renewables while protecting workers.

The release of the financing depends on the finalisation of the Just Energy Transition Partnership Investment Plan ahead of COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November. We are running out of time to demonstrate our commitment. Our longer-term commitment is to be coal-fired energy free by 2050.

Other emerging nations are already enjoying the fruits of their commitment to renewable energy, including on our own continent. These countries — such as Vietnam and Egypt — have proven that energy crises can be quickly addressed — far quicker than building more dirt-spewing power stations.

Solar installations

Similarly to SA, Vietnam experienced severe corruption in its postdemocratic period. Vietnam has also made the same 2050 zero emission promise as SA. The difference between them and SA is that they have already instituted a renewable power development scheme at an annual cost of $11bn. In the five years they have been developing the project they have increased solar generation from zero to more than 16,000MW. With half of the renewable energy investment sourced from government and the rest from private investment, SA could regard Vietnam as a role- model for what it is trying to achieve.

The country has additionally invested in more than 101,000 smaller-scale solar installations, raising the solar output 25-fold while protecting businesses. This solar generation has the same capacity output as six coal plants, is cheaper and is faster to produce. Clean energy should therefore not be a conversation for the future, it’s an emerging market, an answer to our energy crisis, and the only thing holding SA back is itself.

Egypt is doing it differently, integrating traditional power production and renewables. This energy mix is also SA’s immediate goal. In the three-years between 2015 and 2018 Egypt added 28,000MW to the grid and continued that trend recently by investing $1.5bn into its renewable energy plan, with 16 plants in production and six completed.

China, one of SA’s key trade and diplomatic partners, and fellow member of Brics, is among the global leaders in clean energy production. It recently begun developing a hydro-solar power plant that will have the world’s highest output capacity. SA is shooting itself in the foot by not leveraging its Brics and trade relationships and seeking China’s assistance.

Creaking infrastructure

Surely SA’s broken power grid would benefit from the input of a few top Chinese engineers. Surely asking our partners for the short-term assistance of highly skilled experts would yield better results than the recently announced plan to bring back retired Eskom engineers — many of whom, after all, contributed to the long-running crisis?

Allowing the situation to continue sliding is not an option. SA’s energy infrastructure is creaking, and if it doesn’t rapidly refocus on installing renewable energy it risks deepening the crisis and ending up with no energy infrastructure at all.

The energy transition will not happen overnight, but mistakes such as Kusile and Medupi should not be repeated while the country aims to fill gaps in its energy system. Let’s not be investing in short-term money-spinners for the owners of energy infrastructure such as power ships.

What we need to hear from President Cyril Ramaphosa is about a future that involves more than Band Aids and subterfuge, a future that ultimately involves doing the right things for our people and the earth, and turning our backs on coal. A future that given the appropriate impetus and commitment should begin tomorrow, not next week.

• Herron is an MP and Good party secretary-general.

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