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President Ramaphosa Urges South Africa to Maintain Coal as a Fuel Source

Updated: Jun 26, 2023


In a recent speech, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa stated that abandoning coal as a fuel source is not a feasible option for the country, as it currently accounts for 80% of the country's energy supply. While South Africa is committed to transitioning to a low-carbon economy and society, it must also consider its immediate energy crisis.


The Dilemma of Reducing Reliance on Coal

South Africa's reliance on coal presents a catch-22 situation. To align with its Just Transition framework, the country must reduce its reliance on coal, but it is still heavily reliant on it due to the immediate energy crisis. Coal-fired power stations still provide the bulk of the country's "base load" supply into the future.


Ramaphosa emphasized that South Africa is committed to a diverse energy mix that includes coal, renewables, nuclear, gas, hydro, storage, biomass, and other forms of energy. The government has developed a clear, just, and inclusive path towards a low-carbon economy and society through the work of the Presidential Climate Commission and the Presidential Climate Finance Task Team led by Mr. Daniel Mminele, government departments, and stakeholders.


The Shift Away from Coal

While the government has committed to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, there is no indication that the country's recently built mega power plants, Medupi and Kusile, will be shut down. These plants can potentially generate roughly 8,000 megawatts when they are operational.


In late 2022, Cabinet approved the $8.5 billion plan to move away from coal, which is made up of foreign climate finances pledged by some of the world's richest nations to repurpose and close coal-fired power plants in South Africa. The US, UK, Germany, France, and the European Union are part of South Africa's Just Energy Transition Partnership, which is a model for similar agreements with developing countries that rely heavily on coal.


Divisive Opinions on the Shift Away from Coal

The approval of the just energy transition and the shift away from coal has been divisive among political players, with some, such as the minister of mineral resources and energy, Gwede Mantashe, consistently reinforcing his stance that coal is the main driver for energy resilience in the country. This has also been met with resistance from unions representing coal miners, who are concerned about potential job losses.


Pollution Concerns

The continued use of failing coal-fired power stations and plans for boosting emergency generation is threatening the health of South Africans. Eskom, the power utility company, is currently attempting to reduce the level of rolling blackouts by bypassing a flue-gas desulfurization unit, which removes toxic gas from emissions at three of the six units at Kusile. This move could increase the company's sulfur dioxide emissions by eightfold, according to the lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.


The Economic Impact of Coal

Coal is a key source of foreign revenue and a major contributor to the country's economy through the international exportation of the mineral. However, the industry is facing headwinds due to the poor performance of the national freight and logistics company Transnet, which has resulted in the lowest coal exports from the country's Richards Bay Coal Terminal since 1993. The lack of sufficient volume for coal exporting is due to a collapsing rail system under the management of Transnet.


Conclusion

While South Africa is committed to transitioning to a low-carbon economy and society, abandoning coal as a fuel source is not an immediate option due to the country's heavy reliance on it. The government's Just Energy Transition Partnership and plan to move away from coal are steps in the right direction

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