The recent protest action by coal-truck drivers in Pretoria should not come as a surprise. These drivers believe they will lose their jobs as less and less coal is needed by Eskom’s coal-fired power stations. The reason behind the potential job losses, these drivers maintain, is government’s decision to generate more electricity from renewable energy.
Recent protest action by coal-truck drivers in Pretoria provided Eskom with another opportunity to decry the value of renewable energy. These drivers say they will lose their jobs because less coal is needed by Eskom’s coal-fired power stations. The reason behind the potential job losses, these drivers maintain, is government’s decision to generate more electricity from power plants which do not use coal as a fuel source.
The slogans on the coal-truck drivers’ placards and tee-shirts make it clear that the drivers have a very strong bias against independent power producers (IPPs). Eskom has often said the use of renewable energy will result in the decline of coal mining in South Africa.
A recent tweet by Matshela Koko, Eskom’s interim CEO, says the power utility is now burning 3-million t less coal due to the uptake of renewables. Earlier, he said the reduction is due to weak demand for electricity and slow economic growth, as well as electricity generated by wind and solar supplied by IPPs.
It’s easy to see how renewables are being demonised.
What he does not say, however, is that Eskom is planning to reduce its demand for coal further by decommissioning a number of its older coal-fired power stations, including the three stations which were recently part of the utility’s expensive “return-to-service” programme – the very ones which receive coal by road.
Eskom said last year that its focus is on its Medupi and Kusile coal-fired power stations. These power stations receive their coal by conveyor belt, directly from the mine, which is significantly cheaper than receiving it by truck. In other words, Eskom will reduce its dependence on trucked coal anyway.
Furthermore, Koko says the power utility won’t sign any more contracts with coal transporters because it has a surplus of 3-million t of coal.
According to Mary Phadi, a spokesperson, for the Coal Transpor ter’s Forum (CTF) the body wants President Jacob Zuma to prevent Eskom from signing any further power purchase agreements with IPPs on the grounds that, by signing such agreements, Eskom will deprive the coal-truck drivers of their incomes. The CTF is right: Eskom will deprive the coal-truck drivers of their incomes. Not by signing PPAs with IPPs but by reducing its demand for trucked coal. Transporting coal by truck is undesirable because it is expensive and damages the road infrastructure.
While one sympathises with the plight of those employed in the coal mining industry, the reality must be faced: coal mining is in decline. Globally, coal demand is falling and coal mines are closing down. The World Bank has said it will no longer finance new coal mines or coal-fired power stations.
South Africa, which is a signatory to the agreement drawn up by the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at its COP21 Conference in 2015, must take steps to decrease its CO2 emissions. Burning coal to heat water for the production of steam to drive turbines emits a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere. There are other, cleaner, ways of generating heat.
Steam can be produced by concentrating the sun’s rays onto a water tank, as is done in tower-type CSP systems, or onto tubes containing a special heat-transfer fluid, as is done in trough-type CSP systems. Then, of course, there’s nuclear. Nuclear reactors heat water to produce steam in a clean, efficient and cost-effective manner. Eskom’s ambition is to own and operate a fleet of new nuclear power stations with a combined output of 9,6 GW. This, together with the possibility of gas-fired electricity generation in the future, will surely seal the coal mining industry’s fate more certainly than IPPs, which supply a small amount of South Africa’s electricity requirement, will.
The CTF and the miner’s union (NUMSA) need to understand that it is Eskom and the government’s carbon-reduction programme, not the privately-owned IPPs, which is responsible for potential job losses in the mining sector.
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