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A Transition To Renewable Energy Will Not Be Just Until There Are A Greater Percentage Of Winners

The main characteristic of South Africa with regards to its recent narrative around transitions is the notion that justice should be part of the transition.

02/05/2017 03:59 SAST | Updated 02/05/2017 15:02 SAST
Enrique Marcarian/ Reuters

When considering the recent draft Integrated Energy Plan (IEP) and Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) base case public consultation process, the coal truckers' protest and labour's proposed action, it is clear that the transition, although underway, has not been "just" and has not been complemented by supporting measures to that effect.

There are many permutations of a transition, be it an energy transition or a social transition. The main characteristic of South Africa with regards to its recent narrative around transitions is the notion that justice should be part of the transition. This means that the transition must be just.

Outside of the issues of the IEP and IRP base case flaws, it must be noted that the planning process is not energy policy. The integrated planning documents also seem to forget that the transition is underway, the problem is that there has been an enduring understanding that the transition is inevitable and that the best possible action in the face of such a disruption is to manage it and protect the most vulnerable, being the old guard who have and will benefit the most.

There is no plausible reason as to why South Africa would plan to delay the inevitable. Basically if South Africa thinks it can resuscitate the coal industry on the back of the electricity sector then South Africa as a whole will be undertaking an exercise akin to that of Sisyphus. The coal industry had its time, just as telegraphs had their moment, just as stone tools had their era.

Instead of viewing technology associated to coal as a step towards the next more efficient and appropriate technology many think it is the alpha and omega. This turns out in a variety of ways, for one, in the base-case of the IRP. Coal (and nuclear) is given an even larger share of the electricity mix with no real basis and likewise in the IEP, liquid fuels are given an increasing share even though electrification of transport is far more efficient and appropriate in the 21st century.

A lot has changed in the world, since the industrial revolution and the commencement of South Africa's new democratic dispensation. One of the things that has changed, is our understanding of fossil fuels and the economy they power. For a long time, fossil fuels such as coal, nuclear and even oil have been the only sources that can power homes and business. That statement no longer holds true, one way of understanding this is through observing general trends in the global electricity sector. The world is decarbonising on the back of a mix of technologies under the umbrella of renewable energies.

The fact still remains that the attack on the renewable energy sector is unwarranted and indeed misguided.

If South Africa wants to re-industrialise and participate in the economy on competitive terms, without negative perverse fossil fuel subsidies that drain the national revenue, the transition to a just low carbon economy needs to be more deliberate and systematic in absorbing affected parties into the low carbon economy. The renewable energy industry is more labour intensive and absorbs more workers and should be reason enough to encourage unions to focus on leveraging employment opportunities in the just transition.

The fact still remains that the attack on the renewable energy sector is unwarranted and indeed misguided, the transition as a social phenomenon is a duty to which the government must apply its collective mind to. The general sentiment of government not being in harmony and working in silos is evident.

If the Department of Energy (DoE) in its own functions does not recognise the urgency for an up-to-date energy policy, then South Africa is at the mercy of politically motivated discretionary decisions without transparent rationale and will never be in a position to truly understand our potential and trajectory as a nation. It is time for the South African government to show leadership so that all South Africans can benefit from a green economy based on renewable energy.