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The Gathering: Shining a light in dark corners

South Africans hear so much about the disaster that is Eskom. Many of us feel the pain of loadshedding daily. (My lights just went out) Yet, listening to the panel discussion Beyond Eskom at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering 2022 what struck me most (apart from wishing we would call rolling blackouts rolling blackouts) was how little we hear from Eskom (beyond updates to the loadshedding schedule).

Andre de Ruyter

There is too much chatter around key topics in South Africa, and not enough insight from people with their hands on the levers of power, or at the coalface. Not much news from the coalface yet, but good to hear from Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter.

“Make no mistake,” he said. “The energy transition is coming.”

[… but not because there is no more coal …]

“When a technology has reached the end of its life, it doesn’t make sense to continue to perpetuate it; the Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stones.”

Andre de Ruyter

“The opportunity is tangible; I can see no other opportunity to drive economic growth, to solve energy security, to solve our environmental problems, to create employment, than by embarking on this Just Energy Transition.”

When it comes to the ‘Just’ part, a key stakeholder group we seldom hear from is those living in the mining towns and along the coal value chain, where more than 120,000 jobs are threatened by a shift away from coal dependency. 

The Energy – Beyond Eskom panel, from left, Ethan van Diemen, Bambili Energy CEO Zanele Mbatha and Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter.

This group is understandably “more concerned about aspects of their livelihoods being secured than focusing on renewable energy, decarbonisation and energy security”, said Our Burning Planet’s Ethan Van Diemen, who had just returned from Cop27 in Egypt. 

Few people would disagree with De Ruyter when he said that action was needed urgently, but we also know that it is important that the conversation accounts for the needs of the people most affected too. It was great to hear that funds are being raised specifically to ensure that those dependent on the old economy are not just left out of the new one.

Decommissioned: Komati

De Ruyter said Eskom was setting up solar and wind training facilities at the decommissioned Komati Power Station, for which they received R48-million in grant funding from the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet. 

Eskom’s Komati Repowering and Repurposing project is not new news but, as I said, I have been listening to the chatter which tends to drown out real news.

This from an Eskom press release in September:

The facility will enable Eskom to reskill, retrain and upskill workers and communities, as appropriate. In addition to the training facility, which is part of Eskom’s Komati Repowering and Repurposing project, Komati will be repowered with 150 MW of solar, 70 MW of wind and 150 MW of batteries. 

Eskom has also established a containerised micro-grid assembly factory at Komati. The Komati Repowering and Repurposing project is one of the largest coal-fired power plant decommissioning, repowering and repurposing projects globally and will provide a tangible case-study for the world on how to transition fossil-fuel assets.

Eskom had also received €10-million from German investment institution KFW to develop a similar facility to train workers to equip them with renewable energy skills at the soon-to-be decommissioned Grootvlei Power Station.

Bambili Energy CEO Zanele Mbatha

Talking about stakeholders without a voice, Bambili Energy CEO Zanele Mbatha made a very important point that is often forgotten when she asked who was speaking for the unemployed, who was representing their interests.

As soon as one mentions cash/funding one should, as De Ruyter did, address the elephant in the room: “The one big thing about sun and wind is that it cannot be stolen,” he said. “And secondly, it cannot be exported to China to be beneficiated there.” 

Besides, he said, he was telling investors that if they wanted to pay contractors directly for work done, and that money “doesn’t touch Eskom” all the better.

Always look on the bright side

“If you look at our comparative advantage with renewable resources, our worst solar resources are better than the best resources in Germany. Our wind resources are among the best in the world.” said De Ruyter.

The panel discussion Energy – Beyond Eskom featured Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter, Bambili Energy CEO Zanele Mbatha and Our Burning Planet journalist Ethan van Diemen. It was moderated by Karen Allen.

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