South Africa faces challenges in transition away from coal

Living in the shadow of one of South Africa’s largest coal-fired power stations, residents of Masakhane fear job losses if the facility is closed as the country moves to cleaner energy

MASAKHANE, South Africa (AP) — Living in the shadow of one of South Africa’s largest coal-fired power stations, residents of Masakhane fear job losses if the facility is closed as the country moves to cleaner energy.

A significant polluter because it relies on coal to generate about 80% of its electricity, South Africa plans to reduce that to 59% by 2030 by phasing out some of its 15 coal-fired power stations and increasing its use of renewable energy. Its target is zero carbon emissions by 2050.

After receiving pledges of $8.5 billion at last year's global climate summit in Scotland, South Africa's plan to transition away from coal was widely endorsed at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt where officials signed agreements for some parts of the loan funding.

The move from coal will be difficult for the continent's most developed economy. South African homes and businesses are already suffering daily scheduled power cuts — often more than seven hours a day — because the state-owned power utility, Eskom, cannot produce adequate supplies of electricity.

But the change has started. The Komati power station in Mpumalanga province has been decommissioned and $497 million will be used to convert it into a plant using renewable sources and batteries, according to an announcement this month by the World Bank.

Masakhane township, also in Mpumalanga province, sits dramatically at the base of mountains of coal mined nearby and then burned at the Duvha power station.

Residents say they're worried that if the coal-fired plant is closed they'll lose jobs, a serious concern in a country where the unemployment rate is above 30%.

The 3,600 megawatts Duvha power station supplies jobs ranging from contract work at the plant to related employment in the transport and food industries.

Selby Mahlalela, 38, moved to Masakhane in 2006 and has had various maintenance jobs as a contract worker for the state-owned power utility Eskom.

“It is the one place that the majority of people from here rely on for job opportunities, despite them not being permanent workers. This happens a lot especially when there are shutdowns or maintenance work,” said Mahlalela.

The transition remains a contentious issue, even within President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet.

This week, Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe told lawmakers that the transition to cleaner energy should not happen at the cost of people’s livelihoods and the country’s energy security.

“I am one of the people who say we can have a transition. But that coal is not about just numbers, it is about human beings. It is (about) 10 towns in Mpumalanga,” said Mantashe.

In one of those towns, Silindile Kheswa has found work with short-term contracts at the Duvha power station and said he fears the transition away from coal.

“Some of our brothers are involved in the trucking of coal, transporting it to various power stations," said Kheswa. "So if you are saying no more coal, that means we can’t put food on the table.”

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Credit: Denis Farrell

Credit: Denis Farrell

Credit: Denis Farrell

Credit: Denis Farrell

Credit: Denis Farrell

Credit: Denis Farrell

Credit: Denis Farrell

Credit: Denis Farrell

Credit: Denis Farrell

Credit: Denis Farrell