The truck drivers' protest on Wednesday last week (1 March) talks to a very legitimate concern about job security in South Africa, an issue which requires immediate attention. We agree with Cosatu that "there should be a seamless transition to a low carbon economy, which should accommodate workers that are employed in, amongst other sectors, the coal sector". As Cosatu rightly points out, in a country with close to nine million people without jobs we cannot afford to put any existing jobs at risk.
However, acting CEO of Eskom Matshela Koko's assertion that, alongside slow economic growth and weak demand, renewable energy is to blame for the 48 transport company's contracts not being renewed should be thoroughly interrogated. Blaming these job losses on the uptake of renewable energy is merely a smokescreen to deflect attention away from the real issues plaguing the utility, as outlined in great depth in the Denton report which paints a very disturbing picture of gross financial mismanagement.
The list includes over R200 million wasted on diesel in just two years due to Eskom's failure to negotiate discounts with suppliers and improper processes followed in procurement; contravention of the Public Finance Management Act; handpicking of suppliers by senior executives; diversion of business opportunities by employees to themselves, and overpaying on contracts relating to coal supplies and logistics.
It is these practices that have resulted in the poor financial position Eskom finds itself in today and not the fact that it has had to procure renewable energy. Eskom's failure to secure higher tariff increases from the National Energy Regulator (NERSA) has left it seeking government bailouts. And it is now desperately attempting to claw back these costs. Seen in this light, the non-renewal of the truck driver's contracts begins to make sense.
Furthermore, what is conveniently not mentioned is that significant capacity has been brought online which is not renewable energy. New coal units online at Medupi and Kusile will generate at least as much power as all the renewables currently on the grid.
The point is that the closure of these plants has been on the table for a long time and government and Eskom have been fully aware of the associated job losses.
Back-of-the-envelope calculations reveal that the total grid energy provided by renewable energy last year (including Eskom's own generation) only accounts for around 12 days' worth of Eskom's annual coal consumption! This would easily be absorbed by the remaining 10 units of Medupi and Kusile still to come online. Furthermore, had these plants come online on time, we would not be sitting with the coal surplus problem we have today.
The insinuation that Grootvlei, Hedrina, Camden and Kriel (all coal-fired power stations) will be closing in March 2020 because of the additional renewable energy capacity brought online is also fallacious in the extreme. The truth is that Grootvlei, Hendrina and Camden, all over 40 years, are reaching the end of their economic life. Further, as the Denton Report clearly outlines, Eskom's existing fleet is not only desperately under-maintained, but has also been run to full capacity, which possibly explains why Kriel, currently at 36 years, will also be decommissioned.
The point is that the closure of these plants has been on the table for a long time and government and Eskom have been fully aware of the associated job losses. As to references to weak electricity demand, it is poor planning, financial mismanagement and the resultant electricity tariff increases that have been a key driver of declining demand.
What is equally concerning is the discrepancy in Eskom's narrative. If demand is declining, why is there so much enthusiasm for our need to invest in 9.6GW of new nuclear capacity? How would this affect existing jobs in the energy sector, such as those of the coal truck drivers? We know that the nuclear build cannot begin to absorb these jobs.
The reality is that there has been a concerted effort by Eskom senior executives over the past year to discredit and disrupt the renewable energy programme. Its statements regarding the coal truck drivers' strike is merely part of this discourse. This is a dangerous game that not only has the potential to impact on our electricity security as a country, but also affects the livelihoods of many people.
There is no question that we need to engage in robust discussions about our energy future and to define what a just and equitable transition to a cleaner energy mix will entail. We need to consider the impact on existing jobs, where jobs can be absorbed and what measures we need to put in place to protect the country's electricity supply and the people employed in this space. In this respect, Eskom and the Department of Energy should be leading the charge instead of hiding behind fallacious arguments that further obstruct the rollout of the fastest, cleanest and cheapest form of electricity production, namely renewable energy.