“We need a national energy debate”

"We need a national energy debate!"Is it not time for labour to sponsor a national energy debate which looks into the new array of possibilities for energy production that the twenty-first century has opened up, asks independent researcher, David Fig.

In June 2008, the cabinet approved the nuclear policy. Yet no-one has independently evaluated Eskom’s proposals (see table).

Are they the most appropriate way to go in the light of our development needs? Do they serve the commitments we are expected to make in terms of climate change? Or are they knee-jerk responses to a crisis which is ill-understood by officials and politicians seeking a quick fix but ignoring South Africa’s long term needs?

The application for a rise of 53% in electricity bills for next year resulted in a Summit of business, government and labour, held under the auspices of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC).

This did not rule out Eskom’s long term needs, but decided on a policy of smoothing the price increases over a three-year period. The regulator bought into this proposal, and agreed on increases of 25% in 2009, 20% in 2010 and 25% again in 2011.

In a sense the regulator has failed to place any conditionality on Eskom’s capital spending. Having broadly accepted the need to raise the cost of electricity to consumers, it has bought into the logic that our long term electrification should depend on expanded coal and uranium use.

While this solution is one which is favoured by large industry in the short run, in the long run it ties our development to outdated and retrogressive energy options.

This is precisely the time when we need an informed public debate in which the orthodoxies can be evaluated, questioned and challenged. We should be an open enough society and a robust enough democracy to assess our options more effectively.

We should be allowed to place the concerns of working people on the table, and not just pander to the short-term interests of capital. Before we are pushed along the path of unsustainable energy options, we should surely need to consider the alternatives.

These are increasingly available, technologically feasible, and worthy of investment. Yet Eskom seems only marginally interested in their adoption.

As the rest of the world makes increasing investments in wind, solar and other alternatives, Eskom is using the current crisis to scare the public into acceptance of the fossil fuel and uranium route.

Alternative energy sources easier to place in local community handsPart of the reason for this is that the alternative energy sources are less centralised, and easier to place in local community hands.

For this reason they require less monopoly control. They can generate far more jobs than the older forms of generation, opening the way for local people to gain livelihoods from their installation, maintenance and repair without the need for expensive training.

They suit our development needs more exactly.We should be heading forward to become a smarter society, not one which continues to be imprisoned in the outdated energy solutions of the fossil and uranium age.

Are we up to the challenge?If unions are to make the case for more affordable and more sustainable energy, they need to consider how we generate it. In the past some unions (including Cosatu as a federation and the Num) have questioned going down the uranium road, to the extent of passing congress resolutions advocating the contrary.

Is it not time for labour to sponsor a national energy debate which looks into the new array of possibilities for energy production that the 21st century has opened up? Or is it sufficient to leave the policy making to the special interests like Eskom and the large industries which argue for more of the same recipe?

Pressures from Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon emissionsThe new commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol is scheduled to begin in 2012. It is clear that the world is going to put pressure on some of the emerging economies, especially those like Brazil, India, China and South Africa which do not have Annex I targets but use huge amounts of coal, to accept a greater role in emissions reduction.

Such countries have been hiding behind the doctrine of “common but differentiated responsibilities” enshrined in the Rio Declaration and the United Nations Framework on Climate Change.

However, the growing urgency of the problem, added to the impatience of the Annex I countries, may mean that countries like South Africa will have to accept a more stringent time-table for emissions reductions. One lesson from the crisis is that there is little preparation for resisting such pressures.

Civil society must have a sayOther lessons are also palpable. We need:* a more prepared, informed civil society to take stronger responsibility to intervene in energy policy matters. * a more collective approach to short-term solutions to energy outages, not the sheer individualism which we have witnessed recently. * to underline the importance of a national energy policy debate that would take into account the concerns of the different stakeholders, and break the monopoly of access to government held by the mining and smelter companies and other large users of electricity. * to prioritise the extension of the grid to all citizens. * to recognise the potential for livelihoods of more decentralised and more renewable energy sources. * to question the orthodoxy that only coal and uranium can deliver the requisite power needs of the country.

Our development needs, including the need to create more jobs, reverse climate change, and avoid pollution, demand that we take the politics of energy more seriously and seek solutions that prepare us better for the future.

Let us learn how to realise the full potential of renewable sources in order for our citizens and our neighbours to move towards prosperity and peace. This is an edited version of a talk that Fig presented at the Basker Vashee Memorial Lecture, de balie, Amsterdam, 24 June 2008 Eskom's planned projects:

Kind of power station

Power generated



When will generation start

Fossil-fuels/ nuclear/ renewable

Coal-fired power stations

9576 MW

Medupi, LimpopoKendall, Witbank

R163 billion

After 2011


Recommission-ing mothballed coal-fired power stations

3 800 MW

Camden, Grootvlei, Komati

R20 billion

2011 full operational


Nuclear:* pilot pebble bed* 5 large pressurised water reactors

165 MW

5000 MW

R100 billion for all projects

At the earliest in 2016

Nuclear energy

Two open cycle gas turbines (uses imported diesel fuel to run turbines)

2050 MW

Atlantis and Gouriqua in W Cape

R5 billion


Hydro power

1332 MW

Ingula, Drakensberg

R9 billion



Solar thermal power station

600 MW

Upington, Northern Cape

R50 million


What is the Kyoto ProtocolThis is an agreement that falls under the United Nations and has been signed by 182 countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels by 2008-2012.

In terms of this Protocol:* 36 developed countries (called Annex 1 countries) are required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the levels specified for each of them in the treaty.

The United States has not ratified the treaty. If these countries fail to reduce their emissions they can offset this by buying carbon credits from other countries. * 137 developing countries have ratified the protocol, including Brazil, China,

South Africa and India, but have no obligation beyond monitoring and reporting emissions. South Africa is a non Annex 1 country. From: www.wikipedia.com


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