Leaders of South Africa’s solar electricity industry are calling for government programs to ease the way for workers and communities affected by the looming decommissioning of some of the country’s coal generating stations.
Absent a targeted transition program, warned Davin Chown, chair of the SA Photovoltaic Industry Association (Sapvia), and Mike Levington, who chairs its green economy subcommittee, a social backlash will hold up the necessary shift to renewable energy.
“Two facts are undisputable,” the pair write on South African business news site Fin24. “Firstly, a least cost scenario [for power supply] cannot include nuclear and, secondly, Eskom [the national electrical utility] will need to decommission some 27.5 gigawatts of coal-fired power stations by 2040.”
And yet, “for the communities who have for decades been dependent on coal-fired energy for their livelihoods, the energy transition is a spectre that threatens the very reason for their existence.”
Coal lobbyists complain that the wider adoption of renewable energy “will result in massive job losses in coal mining and related sectors—and it is hard to disagree with them,” Chown and Levington write. “Once-lively mining communities are slowly sliding into decay, and this will accelerate over the coming years.”
The job insecurity has led to protests. Earlier this year, they recall, “thousands of coal truck drivers brought traffic to a standstill in Pretoria to protest against Eskom’s signing new renewable energy contracts.”
Within the national government, as well, the prospect of losing steady revenue from central power plants has led to “the sowing of anti-renewable sentiment”.
But preventing new contracts with independent renewable energy suppliers won’t save coal industry jobs.
“The cost of new-build solar and wind energy in South Africa is now comfortably below that of new-build coal and nuclear, making it increasingly difficult for Eskom to make a rational argument for choosing coal or nuclear over renewables,” Chown and Levington note. “Add to this that many coal-fired plants are due to reach the end of their life cycle in the next three to five years, and it is clear that renewables have to be part of our energy future.”
But even though “the number of new jobs created in the renewable sector may outnumber the number of jobs lost in the coal sector,” they acknowledge, “on an individual level it will be catastrophic without some form of intervention.” That threat underscores the need for government and business to “work together to develop policy that will not only assist in reskilling labour, but also in developing alternative industries that are geographically and structurally matched.”