We need to be practical in our pursuit of green energy, warns Eskom board chair

Eskom board chairperson Mpho Makwana says South Africa must learn from the mistakes of other economies and “be practical” in its pursuit of green energy.

Makwana gave an interview on the sidelines of the Green Energy Africa Summit (GEAS) in Cape Town on Wednesday.

Speaking days after the new Eskom board was appointed, Makwana shared his views on the just transition, securing South Africa’s energy needs and getting Eskom fired up again.

“Just-transition mechanisms must be balanced with the idea of ‘just access’. We need to figure out how to take everybody along so that the poorest of the poor feel like they are a part of this green future in a meaningful way – in terms of jobs, and access to economic opportunities,” said Makwana.

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He said everything should be done in “moderation” to ensure balance is maintained in the spirit of environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices.

“Every new idea must be tested against its ESG impacts. Is it sustainable? Will it create new jobs? Will it keep the cost of producing electricity affordable? What it costs to turn a tonne of coal into electricity is already extremely high,” said Makwana.

‘We need to be responsible and careful’

Makwana further warned that South Africa must be careful in its pursuit of green energy as it is the only major producer of electricity in southern Africa.

“There’s a government programme and policy that Eskom has to implement. But as we implement that policy, we need to be practical in our pursuit of a healthy energy mix. We need to learn from the mistakes that other economies may have made. Germany attempted to move to full wind power, and also learned some painful lessons. The difference between South Africa and Germany is that Germany’s neighbours have enough capacity to support their energy needs, and an integrated grid. South Africa is the only major producer in our region, and we do not have that luxury. We need to be responsible and careful in managing any transition to ensure that it’s sustainable,” said Makwana.

“Secondly, we need to remember the importance of ‘coal-based towns’ and the economic value chains that they support. If we think of the town of Ogies in Mpumalanga, if we were to – overnight – remove that town’s role as a coal town, what would the people of that town be expected to do? This applies to 10 similar towns in the region that currently are central to the provision of electricity in South Africa.”

He, however, also highlighted the need for Eskom to get back to the days when it was known for producing the cheapest electricity in the world.

Eskom’s immediate priorities

As South Africans continue to live in the dark, with loading shedding expected to continue throughout the week, Makwana said Eskom’s immediate priority was to “keep the lights on”.

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“We have to grapple with how to return the energy availability factor – the EAF – to healthy levels. Under normal conditions, the EAF is 86%. Currently, our EAF is much lower. The president has challenged the Eskom board to get back to 75%. That is a tall order given the state of the systems in the country.”

Eskom’s other priority is its 40,000 employees, whose “sense of self-worth” needs to be reignited, according to Makwana.

“People have been psychologically battered throughout this load shedding challenge.”

The power utility is also looking to reignite a sense of competitiveness between power stations to see who maintains the highest EAF levels.

“This would get us well on the way to maintaining healthy energy availability factors across our operations. It’s not spreadsheets or robotics that will turn Eskom around. It’s people. We need to rekindle their passion and energy.”

Makwana also highlighted the importance of involving communities in safeguarding their power source.

“Nobody will come and cut transmission cables if the community sees it as an asset of its own, which is part of a national asset – our power station fleet.”

Compiled by Vhahangwele Nemakonde

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