In a recent interview, James Mackay, CEO of the Energy Council of South Africa, highlighted the nation’s challenging decision to prioritize energy security over its ambitious decarbonization aspirations. This shift could involve extending the operational life of state power utility Eskom’s coal-fired plants, a move aimed at combating frequent power outages that have been hindering economic growth.
Mackay stressed the fundamental role of energy security in fostering economic growth and activity. However, he acknowledged the downside—South Africa may face reduced access to concessional climate finance and a decline in the competitiveness of its exports. The European Union’s increasing levies on products with carbon-heavy production processes further complicate the situation.
While South Africa is the world’s 14th-largest emitter of climate-warming greenhouse gases, the government has set an ambitious target to reduce emissions by 2030. The nation grapples with the paradox of needing to address power outages promptly while striving to meet its decarbonization goals.
Private companies are encouraged to invest in renewable energy projects. Still, a significant hurdle lies in the insufficient transmission capacity to connect these projects to the grid effectively. This limitation may lead to investments in extending the life of Eskom’s fossil fuel-based plants, potentially delaying the planned closure of a quarter of its coal-fired capacity by 2030.
Mackay revealed that the consideration to extend the life of these plants ranges from three to four years for smaller stations to up to 10 years for mid-life stations. Eskom, the state power utility, is still evaluating the potential costs and environmental impact of such an extension.
South Africa had secured a commitment of $8.8 billion in climate finance from some of the world’s richest nations last year. This funding was intended to support the country’s transition away from coal, contingent on the closure of certain coal-fired plants. The prolonged operation of these plants may necessitate a clear decommissioning plan to attract finance for renewable energy projects and grid infrastructure.
Despite challenges, Mackay expressed optimism about progress in addressing power outages, locally known as load-shedding. He anticipates a substantial reduction in load-shedding from next year until the end of 2024. However, he emphasized the need for accelerated growth in renewable energy, suggesting a doubling of capacity to around seven or eight gigawatts annually.
Acknowledging the complexities and challenges of the energy transition, Mackay emphasized the importance of transparency and a robust approach to address issues and accelerate progress. The delicate balance between ensuring energy security and meeting decarbonization targets remains a critical challenge for South Africa in its journey toward a sustainable energy future.