South Africa cannot be ‘energy angel’, says minister

South Africa's minister of mineral resources and energy says that the country's energy transition cannot be a "pendulum swing" from coal to renewables.


Image : Energy Indaba

Speaking at the two-day Africa Energy Indaba in Cape Town in early March, South Africa’s mineral resources and energy minister, Gwede Mantashe, was blunt about the energy supply problems facing the country, but insisted that the government had a plan to deal with frequent blackouts.

No “accelerated” energy transition

“A challenge is that of inadequate infrastructure to generate and transmit energy, hence intermittent electricity outages that disrupt energy consumption,” Mantashe told delegates at the conference.

“In South Africa, we are moving towards the separation of generation, transmission, and distribution, to enable the entry of other role players in the electricity market space through the Electricity Regulation Act, that is out for public comment.”

This is, generally speaking, a laudable aspiration. But critics say that government policy on renewables remains muddled.

Mantashe tried to reassure the green energy community, saying that South Africa was committed to the transition to low-carbon emissions despite the continuing prominence of coal in the energy mix.

However, he startled some environmentalists by criticising treatment of oil companies, a week after Shell lost its bid to appeal against an interim interdict on seismic surveys in the face of protests by fishing communities.

“The companies that have been making the finds of oil and gas in Namibia have been harassed out of South Africa because we want to be an ‘island of angels’ in a sea of poverty. It’s the most dangerous tactic for us in South Africa, they go out and make huge oil finds elsewhere.”

He also expressed his opposition to an “accelerated” energy transition.

“A just transition is not just a pendulum swing from coal to renewables,” he said, adding that South Africa’s Integrated Resource Plan advocates the pursuit of an energy mix “including renewables such as wind and solar, gas, nuclear, coal, hydro and battery storage”.

Calls for resignation

However, writing in The Mail & Guardian on 14 March, Alex Lenferna, secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition, criticised the policies of Mantashe’s Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) and called for the minister’s resignation.

In contrast with DMRE’s claim to be driving a renewable energy future, Lenfera argued that “renewable energy is being built 10 times slower than is needed to meet South Africa’s (arguably insufficient) climate goals, even according to the oil and gas friendly National Business Initiative.”

Lenfera claimed that DMRE is taking the country on a dangerous pathway that threatens the economy, the environment and the wellbeing of its people.

“That is why the Climate Justice Coalition is demanding that Mantashe be replaced and the department transformed,” he wrote.

Struggling to keep the lights on 

South Africa is the 12th biggest carbon dioxide emitter in the world, but in November signed an $8.5bn deal with wealthy nations to transition away from coal.

Nevertheless, mining unions have kept up the pressure on the government not to give up coal, and with Eskom continuing to struggle to keep the lights on, it may be ever harder to turn decisively away from dirty fuels.

Additional research by David Thomas and Charles Dietz

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