Coal industry needs protection from ‘renewables lobby’, coal conference hears

Mining file picture.

Despite its years-long ‘loyalty’ to South Africa, the coal industry is ‘under attack’ and needs to defend itself from the ‘renewables lobby’, industry insiders heard last week.

Environmental factors, climate change and the state of Eskom’s ageing coal-powered fleet have forced the country to gradually wean itself off coal as its main electricity source, although coal will remain the primary source of energy for South Africa for years to come.

South Africa is the world’s 14th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and Eskom is responsible for about 42% of the country’s emissions.

But the coal industry is deeply concerned about these changes, and there have been calls for the industry to push back.

Addressing coal industry representatives in Cape Town on Thursday, Minerals Council South Africa senior economist Bongani Motsa likened the country’s energy plan to an abusive spouse.

IRP unkind to coal mining

At the IHS Markit annual Southern African Coal Conference on Thursday, Motsa said that the 2019 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which is the government’s long-term energy strategy, was “unkind to coal mining”.

He said just like a new marriage, it was “all joy and happiness” when the country’s last energy plan was released in 2010.

When the draft IRP was published in 2018, it indicated that the country would gradually rely less and less on coal for all of its electricity needs.

“We saw the spouse has abusive traits,” said Motsa.

“The IRP showed its true colours. We were mute, dumbfounded and stupefied…”

When the IRP was gazette in 2019, “the spouse was shamelessly abusive”.

“The IRP disregarded the fact that we have been loyal to this country since the dawn of industrialisation,” Motsa said.

The 2019 IRP stated coal remained an “integral” part of the country’s energy mix which will “continue to play a significant role in electricity generation in the foreseeable future”.

But the document also acknowledged that due to the age of Eskom’s coal-powered fleet and environmental considerations, the country’s coal reliance will decline over the next few decades.

About 24 100 MW of coal power plants will be decommissioned from 2030 to 2050, the plan stated.

Coal will contribute less than 30% of the country’s energy by 2040 and 20% by 2050, according to the IRP.

Motsa said coal was being phased out despite its willingness to invest in “clean coal technologies”.

‘We have not invested sufficiently in clean coal technologies’

“Is this IRP kind to the coal mining industry? It is as if divorce papers have been served. Unless we as an industry take drastic action, coal is dead. Long live coal!” said Motsa.

“We have not invested sufficiently in clean coal technologies which makes it easier for government to succumb to the renewables lobby.”

He said the coal industry needed a “strong coal advocacy group” to show that clean coal technologies would benefit the country.

His remarks were echoed by calls from some delegates for the industry to “wake up and fight back”. There were also a number of calls from delegates for the industry to invest in “clean coal technologies”, although for the most part these calls were vague and had been repeated at previous conferences.

Some experts have warned, however, that there are no available technologies which would totally mitigate the damage to the environment and the climate caused by coal power stations. They say it is also not clear whether the available technologies are feasible at all in South Africa.

Speaking in Cape Town, Rosemary Falcon, director of the Fossil Fuel Foundation and an expert on clean coal technologies, said there was no cost benefit analysis being done on the subject in South Africa.

This despite a variety of clean coal technologies being developed and implemented abroad.

“We are the only continent in the world that doesn’t have its own clean coal capacity,” she said.

“All this work (research) is being done abroad”.

Falcon said this meant that clean coal technologies which did not suit South Africa’s unique coal types would have to be imported, and that this was a contributing factor to the technical problems at the new power stations, Medupi and Kusile.

Falcon revealed that a consortium of researchers from a variety of institutions, including her own research group at Wits University, had applied to the government for a grant to test various clean coal technologies in the country. But they had lost the grant to another group who wanted to develop nuclear energy technology.

‘The role of renewables is important’

Mike Teke, Seriti Resources CEO, called for the transition away from coal to renewables to be done incrementally and responsibly.

“We know the issue of climate change is critical… The role of renewables is important. We cannot wish renewables away. It doesn’t mean that if you are a coal miner, you are an environment denier,” he said.

Teke said that the coal industry should look at increasing its exports, especially to the East, as the country gradually uses less and less coal for energy generation.

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