South Africa faces challenges in transitioning from coal

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

A major polluter because it relies on coal to generate about 80% of its electricity, South Africa plans to cut it to 59% by 2030 by phasing out some of its 15 coal-fired power plants and increasing the use of renewables. Its goal is zero carbon emissions by 2050.

After making $8.5 billion in pledges at the global climate summit in Scotland last year, South Africa’s plan to transition away from carbon was widely endorsed at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt where officials signed agreements on certain parts of the loan financing.

The transition from coal will be difficult for the continent’s most developed economy. South African homes and businesses already suffer from daily scheduled blackouts — often more than seven hours a day — because the state-owned electricity company, Eskom, cannot generate sufficient power supplies.

But the change has begun. The Komati power station in Mpumalanga province has been decommissioned and $497 million will be used to convert it into a plant that uses renewable energy and batteries, the World Bank announced this month.

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 worry that if the coal-fired plant closes they will lose jobs, a serious concern in a country where the unemployment rate is over 30 percent.

The 3,600 megawatt Duvha Power Station provides jobs ranging from factory contracts to related jobs in the transport and food industries.

Selby Mahlalela, 38, moved to Masakhane in 2006 and held various maintenance jobs as a contractor at state-owned electricity company Eskom.

“It is the only place that the majority of people from here rely on for job opportunities even though they are not permanent workers. This happens a lot, especially when there are outages or maintenance work,” said Mahlalela.

The transition remains a contentious issue, even in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet.

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

“I’m one of the people who say we can have a transition. But that carbon isn’t just about numbers, it’s about people. It is (about) 10 towns in Mpumalanga,” Mantashe said.

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

“Some of our brothers are into coal transportation, taking it to various power plants,” Kheswa said. “So if you say no more coal, that means we can’t put food on the table.”

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