SA Energy Minister stresses longevity of coal dependency

By Jennifer Zabasajja and Paul Burkhardt

South Africa’s energy minister said expecting a rapid transition from its dependence on coal-fired power generation to clean energy would be “very wrong,” and the nation will need to use the fossil fuel for longer to address an electricity shortage.

Gwede Mantashe’s reiteration of his view that coal will continue to play a vital role in South Africa’s energy mix comes as wealthy nations look for ways to invest in technologies that help decarbonize the country. Mantashe said clean-energy technologies that rely on intermittent factors like sunshine or wind are less reliable than coal plants that are able to run 24 hours a day. 

“This belief that you can leave coal and move to renewables: there’s a technical mistake, very wrong, it will never work,” he said in an interview at Bloomberg’s offices in Johannesburg.

Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd., the state-owned electricity company, is struggling to meet demand for power mainly because its coal-fired plants are unreliable and keep breaking down, resulting in outages — known locally as loadshedding — of up to 12 hours a day. The government’s focus on improving the energy availability factor at coal-fired plants has helped reduce power cuts and is expected to eventually eliminate them, Mantashe said.

“Coal is going to be around for a long time; for a longer time than many people expect it will be,” he said.

Mantashe, who is also the chairman of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, conceded that the party has made key mistakes in the energy sector during its 30 years in power — specifically on delays in building new power plants and the flawed design that was used when they were built.

“That is one of those mistakes and we are learning out of it,” he said. Eskom’s Medupi and Kusile stations are still being fixed after construction lagged years behind schedule at a bloated cost from original estimates.

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