Not everyone will make it to the other side of South Africa’s Just Energy Transition (JET) from heavy dependence on coal energy towards renewables. But, given that the fight against climate change is important for all, support from provincial and local governments is critical to implement national policies in order to reach emission reduction targets.

/Just Energy Transition/

An approach to moving away from fossil fuels that considers the people who are most affected by that transition.

Mpumalanga – home to the majority of Eskom’s coal generation fleet – is where the worst harm will be felt as a consequence of the energy transition. The irony being that, at least according to experts, the province holds the key to South Africa’s Renewable Energy prospects.

Our national power utility Eskom has also acknowledged this and is driving major investment into the province to reposition it from being a coal supplier to a green energy hub, the heart and soul of the JET programme.

Why Mpumalanga?

eMalahleni (formerly Witbank) was founded as the administrative centre of South Africa’s coal country. The high concentration of collieries (coal mines) and coal-fired power stations in the province have created a coal-specific economy that will collapse in the energy transition.

So what’s the plan?

To unlock the potential for renewable energy within the province. Green hydrogen is one opportunity with immediate benefits, and Sasol is commencing a pilot project driven by renewable energy at its Secunda plant.

According to experts, deploying renewable power in this area will facilitate faster power distribution and that is why it has become a priority area for green investment.

“The large number of Energy Intensive Users (EIUs) in and around the eMalahleni area makes it the ideal location to promote private off-taker agreements for the purchase of energy from IPPs,” said Mercia Grimbeek, the Chairperson of the South African Wind Energy Association (SAWEA).

She said: “Furthermore, an increase in private agreements will relieve some of the pressure on the system operator to generate power. This is more beneficial when the renewable energy sources are in close proximity to the grid that can accept more power generation and allow wheeling”

Grimbeek also said that the province holds a number of opportunities as a component manufacturing hub which will further entrench the positive impact on job creation by the renewable energy industry. 

“An increase in local production has the potential to be paired with an increase in the deployment of renewable energy facilities. Furthermore, the deployment of wind and solar facilities means an increase in construction activity, the production of various electrical components, such as transformers, and a definite increase in logistics.” she said.

What is the expected impact of the green economy?

Mpumalanga Premier, Refilwe Mtshweni-Tsipane, said that the launch of the Green Energy sector would be an impact catalyst to improve the lives and opportunities for people across the province, more than half of which live below the breadline according to statistics. The provincial unemployment rate, at 36.1 percent in Quarter 2 of 2022, is higher than the national figure and the third highest amongst the provinces.

“We realise that our country’s plans to transition to a low-carbon, climate resilient economy, including the decommissioning and repurposing of coal-fired power stations, will have a significant impact on the mining and energy industry in Mpumalanga and on the communities that depend on these industries.”

“Hence, we are excited at the potential to work closely with Impact Catalyst that improves the employability of young people through education, skilling and also exposing them to possible entrepreneurship opportunities,” said Mtshweni-Tsipane.

Are there more plans after eMalahleni?

At the centre of Mpumalanga’s green energy hub is eMalahleni Local Municipality which was declared as one of the three Renewable Energy Development Zones (REDZ) following the publication of a Government Gazette signed by Minister Barbara Creece in February 2021.

eMalahleni municipality is expected to benefit from this announcement as it plans to create other revenue streams than those that rely on coal mining and coal power generation activities.

Mpumalanga is earmarked for an allocation of up to 2.6GW by the Department of Energy under Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Programme (REIPPP) by 2030.

Most of these developments will fall under the eMalahleni REDZ which will contribute towards South Africa’s carbon emission reduction targets.

This will be supported by expedited administrative processes. Renewable Energy projects in this area will be able to get an environmental assessment completed in 147 days compared to 300 days in other areas.

What does Eskom say about these investments?

Eskom CEO André de Ruyter said repurposing old coal-fired plants in Mpumalanga with renewables can help solve the problem of grid access in the short term while also ensuring that the energy transition is just.

He said Eskom wants to drive investment in renewable energy capacity to Mpumalanga because it has good wind and sun for renewable energy initiatives particularly in the eMalahleni and Steve Tshwete municipalities.

De Ruyter said this initiative would also enable a just energy transition – the area has significant human capital that can be skilled and trained to work with renewables.

“Eskom is working with the South African Renewable Energy Technology Centre, part of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, to establish a training centre,” said De Ruyter.

He said Eskom will retire 22GW of its coal-fired plants by 2035, reducing emissions by 62 percent overall.

De Ruyter said expanding the transmission network will be costly, which is why it is essential to enable access to the existing infrastructure by repurposing old power stations to green technologies by rolling out renewables in Mpumalanga, which has good solar and wind resources and can ensure easy access to the grid.

Overall, South Africa’s electricity supply industry needs new investment of R1.2 trillion by 2035.

The eMalahleni Local Municipality and the Mpumalanga Department of Economic Development failed to respond to questions.