#VOA. | Climate, a dilemma for coal-dependent South Africa

World’s 12th largest emitter of greenhouse gases, South Africa derives 80% of its electricity from fossil fuels, in aging power plants that are poorly maintained by a financially troubled public company, Eskom.

As the 26th Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow approaches, which opens on October 31, the country faces a dilemma: how to produce enough electricity for a growing middle class and sustain economic activity , without worsening the global climate crisis?

In this southern African country, blackouts are part of everyday life. The cuts are planned, the schedules shared on mobile applications and relayed in the media.

“Our country is facing an energy crisis which requires urgent attention,” environmental activist Ditebogo Lebea warned Wednesday during an online conference. “As a young South African, I am afraid”.

Power cuts are a disaster for economic activity and undermine efforts to reduce a record unemployment rate of 34%.

– In the dark –

During the first blackouts almost 15 years ago, entire cities found themselves plunged into darkness. The government first approached the problem extensively.

Discounts of up to 100% have been offered to households opting for solar water heaters. Wind turbines grew like mushrooms and a huge solar farm was born in the desert.

But at the same time, the country has decided to build two new coal-fired power stations, one of which has not yet been completed. With a power of around 4,800 megawatts each, they are to form the largest coal-fired power generation site in the world.

For comparison, the solar farm in the north of the country has a capacity of 50 megawatts. Yet South Africa enjoys 2,500 hours of sunshine per year, about 600 more than solar power champion Germany.

“Everyone recognizes that renewable energies are a huge opportunity in South Africa,” said energy specialist Argon Poorum of the NGO GreenCape.

In 2010, South Africa tried to launch a pioneering renewable energy auction system to attract private investors. But five years later, Eskom put an end to it, on the pretext that renewable energies are too expensive.

– Zuma effect –

The energy policy mess started with Jacob Zuma, elected president in 2009 and pushed to resign after a series of scandals in 2018.

He rejected all solar projects and tried to negotiate under obscure conditions a nuclear deal with Russia for an amount of 58 billion euros.

His plan failed but greenhouse gas emissions increased by 10% between 2000 and 2017, according to government figures.

His successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, tried to change course by relaunching the renewable energy program last year. Nuclear power has not been ruled out, however, and three licenses have recently been approved for floating power plants using natural gas.

Eskom also pledged to phase out old coal-fired power plants over the next three decades.

But some still see no other way. Among them, the Minister of Energy, Gwede Mantashe, who has become a champion of controversial “clean coal” techniques that are supposed to make it less polluting. Some 500,000 mining jobs are at stake.

One of the goals of the Climate Conference is to get rich countries to keep their promises to raise at least $ 100 billion a year to support developing countries towards clean energy.

South Africa, in need of funding, is now eyeing a slice of the pie. “Better late than never,” sighs energy expert Chris Yelland.

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Source: VOA-AFP.

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