Conference Puts South Africa's Energy Poverty In Focus

Africa Energy week highlighted need to invest in power generation and renewables.

By Chriselle Moraes on
19th March 2023

Industry leaders gathered in Cape Town, South Africa, for Africa Energy Week in October 2022 to discuss energy poverty and the transition to renewables.

Verner Ayukegba, Senior Vice President of the African Energy Chamber, speaking to CNN International, described the energy situation as “Six hundred million people without any kind of access to energy, and 900 million people, mostly women and children, without any access to clean cooking fuels. From that perspective, Africa’s energy situation is one where we need to focus on investing significantly into generating power for all of those people. That is why we have decided to champion making energy poverty history by 2030.”

Coal remains South Africa’s primary source of energy. “It’s easy to say we wean ourselves off coal. In Africa, we are saying we are for solar as well, but what we can’t do is close all the coal mines. We need solar, but we also need base load, a significant amount of base load, which comes with gas, coal, hydrocarbons, hydro, and all of that. We can’t afford at this stage to discard any of the solutions,” said Ayukegba.

In 2021, the World Bank noted that “the experience of Europe and the United States has shown that the shift from coal can take decades and present not only economic and employment challenges, but social and cultural ones.”

At Middleburg Mine Services in Emmaelni, home to 1,200 employees, the transition away from fossil fuels will impact local communities and employees. 

Seriti, a broad-based, 91% black-owned and controlled energy company underpinned by coal, is one of South Africa’s largest coal producers and employs nearly 20,000 workers across several mines.

Mike Teke, CEO of Seriti, shares his awareness of the need for an energy transition, “Everybody understands climate change. Everybody understands decarbonisation. Nobody among us who run coal mines or operate in the mining industry are climate denialists.”

He highlights the differences in energy in Africa and the need to transition strategically, “We operate in a country that is a developing economy, a growing economy. We’re not a developed economy like the United States or some of the countries in Europe. We need to develop our own agenda as South Africa.”

Teke wants to make sure coal workers are reskilled for the energy transition, “We need to be realistic and say if we were to go into building solar farms, wind farms, hydro, and the light new forms of energy, it’s not going to be one for one the jobs. That is why we transition. That is why we need to reskill our employees to new forms of employment and new skills that will give them a livelihood into the future.”

General Manager at Just Energy Transition, Eskom Holdings, Mandy Rhambaros, prioritizes helping the transition of workers, “We are training all our staff at Komati on renewables. Our guys will be retrained, and obviously, those that want to stay on to operate and maintain the renewables plants that we will be building will be more than welcome to do so.”

Priscillah Mabelane is the Executive Vice President at Sasol, a global provider of energy and chemicals based in South Africa. Sasol is committed to the energy transition, but according to Mabelane, the most viable vision for coal is the reduction of its need. “At some point into the future, 2050 to 2060, dependency on coal is going to disappear. The question is, how do we transition from that? We’ve set ourselves carbon neutrality by 2050. That’s clear. We are changing our mix of energy and replacing coal with renewables. At the same time, we are also ensuring that we are efficient in the way we consume energy going forward,” she said.

Solar energy is also an alternative energy source with a lot of potential. According to the International Energy Agency, the continent of Africa is home to 60% of the globe’s solar resources but only 1% of the world’s installed solar capacity.

The CEO of New Southern Energy explains that his company provides solar energy solutions to various businesses in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania, and Kenya. “Our clients range through various sectors, agriculture, manufacturing, hospitality, retail, and property. We very much focus on the commercial and industrial space, so that’s rooftop solar and behind-the-meter solutions. It plays a big part in demand reduction and provides, in the South African context, clients with energy security and cost reduction,” said David Masureik.

Masureik admits, “Whether we like it or not, we have to live with coal for the foreseeable future. Our base load at the moment is heavily dependent on coal.” However, he thinks that with time South Africa will move to a greener future, “I think with more and more renewables coming online, with battery technology coming to the fore on a utility-scale, with peaking plants and things like that coming into play, even green hydrogen, I think we might get to a scenario where actually the baseline will be reduced significantly from coal.”

Top Photo: Arnot Coal Plant Power Station , Middleburg, Mpumalanga, South Africa (Gerhard Roux | Wikimedia)

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