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Service Issue 79

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Service magazine addresses key issues related to government leadership and service delivery in South Africa.

S energy We need to find

S energy We need to find a middle path in the battle over a just energy transition A just energy transition is a global hot-button topic, especially in South Africa where the coal industry is a major supplier of jobs. The two opposing schools of thought seem unable to find a middle ground, so perhaps compromise will have to be the name of the game. By Stanley Semelane, senior researcher at the CSIR The missing link in the South African energy transition is a solid plan that will ensure a reasonable and just transition for the workforce in the coal sector. The plan needs to acknowledge that social, environmental and economic aspects matter, especially for most South Africans, who are still confronted with poverty realities. It seems the country’s energy transition is biased, like beauty (beautiful in the eye of the beholder) – very often acceptable to those who are not involved in the coal economy nor likely to be economically and adversely affected by the consequences. This means the minerals-energy complex will bear the consequences of poor planning associated with the transition. There are two schools of thought, canvassed from extremes in the debate. The first – representing activists for carbonemission reduction at all costs – is biased towards environmental science. It can be referred to as an environmental and economic costs-driven group. They maintain that the costs of emissions are far too high for human life, so we need to accelerate the decarbonisation agenda. Furthermore, this group has started singing a new anthem that is enhanced by the falling prices of renewable energy technologies. Activists recently reported that “renewable energy-generated electricity is cheaper than coal”. In 2010, the anthem was the need to reduce greenhouse gases and meet the Kyoto Protocol objectives. Ten years later, the melody seems to have swung towards the transcripts that amplify energy production costs. The second school of activists can be referred to as the status quo group, which argues that the environmental consequences of the coal sector are insignificant relative to advanced economies such as the US and China, so there is no need for change. They say South Africa is endowed with enough coal resources and reserves to last many years, thus creating jobs and contributing to the gross domestic product (GDP). This group also repeatedly says the accelerated adoption of renewable technologies might result in an unbalanced energy system owing to their variable nature. We all know the sun doesn’t shine all the time and that the wind doesn’t blow 24 hours, and this group has advanced the need for a baseload requirement in the country’s power system. There is merit in their argument: the energy system does need to be balanced and the current renewable energy power plants will not balance the system without a baseload. In response, the environmental and economic costs-driven group has started rehearsing a new melody in the area of natural gas and green hydrogen, arguing that these are flexible and therefore suitable for balancing the system. The status quo group advances nuclear power as a solution to the baseload challenge, saying it addresses the environmental concerns raised by their opponents. The latter criticise nuclear technology due to exorbitant costs, while others remind us of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan on 11 March 2011, as well as the risks in handling nuclear waste. It doesn’t take long to understand there is something wrong with the country’s energy provision services. The energy industry associates sometimes want to sound diplomatic, with statements such as “we need all the technologies” and “the energy technologies complement each other”. 28 | Service magazine

energy S Service magazine | 29

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