South Africa may delay shutting down many of its highly polluting coal-fired power stations, President Cyril Ramaphosa said Monday, a move that could stem a crisis of daily electricity blackouts but would slow a shift to greener energy sources.
South Africa is Africa’s most developed economy but is experiencing rolling nationwide blackouts, sometimes for more than 10 hours a day, because of an electricity shortfall. The blackouts, which have become worse over the past year, have been deeply damaging to the economy and to the popularity of Ramaphosa’s government ahead of national elections next year.
Under the new plan, which Ramaphosa outlined only broadly in his weekly letter to the nation, South Africa will consider a delay in the decommissioning of some of its 14 coal plants to help ease the electricity cuts, known as “load-shedding.”
About 80% of South Africa’s electricity is provided by coal. The nation is the world’s 16th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases overall, at about 1.13% of global emissions, and 45th per capita based on 2019 data, according to ClimateWatch.
“In some cases, it may be necessary to re-examine the timeframe and the process of decommissioning or mothballing of coal-fired power stations temporarily to address our electricity supply shortfall,” Ramaphosa wrote. “Few would argue that we should close down power stations even as we experience load-shedding.”
The blackouts are cutting electricity to South African homes and businesses and its 60 million people several times a day, usually in two-hour blocks.
Ramaphosa wrote that South Africa was still committed to the world’s climate targets but had to balance that with its energy security requirements and the immediate priority of ending, or at least reducing, the power cuts. He pointed out that South Africa wasn’t the only country leaning on coal to address short-term energy supply problems.
“A number of countries in Europe that had decommissioned or mothballed their fossil fuelled power stations are recommissioning them to address the current energy shortage as a result of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia,” Ramaphosa wrote.
Extending the life of the coal stations would throw scrutiny on South Africa’s Just Energy Transition policy, for which it has already received pledges of $8.5 billion from the United States, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union to help phase out fossil fuels.
Under the policy, South Africa has committed to reducing its reliance on coal for its electricity by at least 50% by 2035. It says it will need at least $84 billion to complete the transition to “net zero” carbon emissions from its electricity generation by 2050.
The coal stations, which are run by the state-owned power utility, Eskom, are by far the largest emitters of pollutants in South Africa. Since 1959, South Africa has put nearly 18.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air, ranking 13th among nations, according to Global Carbon Project, a group of scientists that track national emissions.
Many of the stations are old and inefficient and experience regular breakdowns. That, combined with years of mismanagement and corruption at Eskom, has left South Africa operating with a daily electricity deficit of about 6,000 megawatts.
That may increase with electricity demand expected to peak in the winter months of June and July and experts and government officials have warned that the country faces a testing winter season. The country has managed to add some electricity from renewable energy sources like wind and solar but it is not nearly enough.
South African energy expert Chris Yelland said Ramaphosa’s statement on delaying the decommissioning of the power stations was in contradiction to several policy decisions and Eskom’s own operational plans to decommission the plants.
He said extending the lifespans of coal plants could require South Africa to change some of its laws, including the Air Quality Act, which has specific targets for the improvement of air quality. But Ramaphosa and his ruling African National Congress party were under political pressure to find a solution to the damaging electricity crisis ahead of elections next year, Yelland said.
“There is now a kind of desperation and political pressure as South Africans are really fed up with load-shedding, so they (Ramaphosa and the ANC) need to be seen to be doing something in the short-term,” Yelland said. “Load-shedding on its own can have a huge impact on the outcome of the upcoming elections.”
Newly appointed electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa said last week that the situation was so dire that the government was even considering reinvesting in some of the coal stations to extend their lifespan.
Ramaphosa wrote that “the process of re-examining our timeframes is not a reversal of our position on the just energy transition.”
One coal station, the Komati Power Station in the Mpumalanga province, was decommissioned earlier this year and will be converted into a renewable energy site with wind, solar and storage batteries.