Dear Sputla, please burn more coal.
The Minister of Electricity, Dr Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, known fondly as Sputla, recently said that if he had his way, he would go and restart the Komati Power Station, because an injustice is being done to those communities in the name of a “just” energy transition.
South Africans should be rejoicing at the fact that our government is moving away from their dogmatic environmental commitments, that they made at international forums and towards a more realistic energy path.
What Sputla learned the hard way is a lesson in the Iron Law of Electricity. The term was first coined by energy author Robert Bryce, when he noted that countries such as Pakistan, India, Vietnam, Japan and China are all still burning coal, and that despite the rhetoric of The Western Elite, there seems to be no relationship between politicians who say they are “fighting climate change”, and concrete actions that translate into “decarbonisation”.
This was also the thesis of William Nordhouse who posthumously won the Noble Prize in 2018, for his work of integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis.
The Iron Law of Electricity suggests that countries that move too fast in the direction of decarbonisation will revert to where they started if the policy is not properly implemented, and even green politicians will find themselves snared into internal geopolitical conflicts.
The ANC is not the first government to learn this. In 2018 the French President Emmanuel Macron made the same mistake when he proposed to add a carbon tax on “dirty” diesel. Before he could implement the policy, the men and women of The Firth Republic were out on the streets with the slogan, “the elite speak of the end of the world, when we speak of the end of the month”.
Monsieur Macron was elected as being “pro Margaret Thatcher” and “anti-nuclear”. But due to the President crafting policies that attacked the country’s traditional electricity system, the local communities felt threatened and put pressure on the French State to change its policy direction.
Groups such as Les Voix du Nucléaire and the Gillet Jaune started mobilising and community radio stations such as Sud Radio began criticising the government’s ignorance and callous neglect of the French Citizen.
Today, like the ANC, Monsieur Macron has been forced to change course. In fact, France has gone further by renationalising Electricité de France and recommitting to the reconstruction of France’s proud Nuclear Fleet. The French Ouvrier, the worker, gave Macron, “The Davos Man” an important lesson in Geopolitics for construction, that disruptions in an electricity system will threaten a country’s population and trigger the grand strategy.
Broadly speaking South Africa should have three priorities in terms of energy supply and in the following order: 1. energy security, 2. cost and equity and 3. environmental concerns.
Of the latter, air quality control and actual pollution leads and decarbonisation follows. No poor country has managed to decarbonise its electricity system unless it has a fortunate geography such as fault lines for Geothermal Energy or catchment areas for Hydropower. It’s not that their leaders are insensitive to the Global Warming Debate, its simply because they must balance a variety of interests.
Like France, South Africa cannot deviate from our historical path. Our policy should include upgrading our coal power stations to high efficiency low emissions coal.
HELE coal reduces air pollution and can cut carbon emissions by up to 90%. The advantage of such a policy is that the 2.3 million people in the wider Mpumalanga region won’t be at threat of losing their jobs, because supply chain disruptions are minimal.
The upgrade adds additional capacity to our grid as the plants would go from 30% efficiency to more than 55%. Coal is the least costly option for South Africa as the economist Dr Rob Jeffrey demonstrated in his 2022 PhD thesis at the University of Johannesburg, confirming the OECD’s 2018 report titled, “The full cost of electricity”.
In the short term, even on an environmental basis, there is no problem with restarting the estimated 16GW-18GW coal power stations that are currently offline, broken down or on scheduled maintenance. South Africa emits 1% of all global carbon dioxide emissions, our footprint is already minimal, and we are tough enough to live with a bit of pollution for the sake of development.
Eskom should assess how many of these stations can operate and restart them tomorrow and in addition, we should import liquefied natural gas (LNG) and build nuclear power plants around the coast for desalination. The policy requires a debt expansion, but the increase in gross domestic product recovers the cost.
Let’s help Spulta stand up to the NGO Industrial Complex and restart our coal fleet.
Let’s burn more coal.
Hügo Krüger is a YouTube podcaster, writer, and civil nuclear engineer who has worked on a variety of energy related infrastructure projects ranging from Nuclear Power, LNG and Renewable Technologies.
* The views expressed by the columnist are held independently of Business Report and Independent Media.