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South Africa has a long road ahead to remove its coal dependence

Renewable energies represent only a very small part of South Africa energy mix. In reality, the first industrial power of the African continent is still very dependent on coal.

The world’s 12th largest emitter of greenhouse gases, South Africa derives 80% of its electricity from fossil fuels, in aging power plants that are poorly maintained by a financially troubled state-owned company, Eskom.

As the 26th Climate Conference (COP26) opens in Glasgow, the country faces a dilemma: how to produce enough electricity for an ever-growing middle class and support economic activity, without worsening the climate crisis global?

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In this southern African country, blackouts are part of everyday life. The cuts are planned, the schedules shared on mobile applications and relayed in the media. “Our country is facing an energy crisis that requires urgent attention,” environmental activist Ditebogo Lebea warned last Wednesday during an online conference. “As a young South African, I am scared. The power cuts are a disaster for economic activity and undermine efforts to reduce a record unemployment rate of 34%.

During the first blackouts nearly fifteen years ago, entire cities found themselves plunged into darkness. The government initially approached the problem extensively. Discounts of up to 100% have been offered to households opting for solar water heaters. Wind turbines grew like mushrooms and a huge solar farm was born in the desert.

But at the same time, the country has decided to build two new coal-fired power stations, one of which is yet to be completed. With an output of around 4,800 megawatts each, they are to form the largest coal-fired power plant in the world.

For comparison, the solar farm in the north of the country has a capacity of 50 megawatts. Yet South Africa enjoys 2,500 hours of sunshine per year, about 600 more than solar power champion Germany.

“Everyone recognizes that renewable energies are a huge opportunity in South Africa,” said energy specialist Argon Poorum of the NGO GreenCape, quoted by AFP. In 2010, South Africa tried to launch a pioneering renewable energy auction system to attract private investors. But five years later, Eskom put an end to it, on the pretext that renewable energies are too expensive.

The energy policy mess started with Jacob Zuma, elected president in 2009 and forced to resign after a series of scandals in 2018. He rejected all solar projects and tried to negotiate a nuclear deal in obscure conditions. with Russia for an amount of 58 billion euros.

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His plan failed but greenhouse gas emissions increased by 10% between 2000 and 2017, according to government figures.

His successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, tried to change course by relaunching the renewable energy program last year. Nuclear power has not been ruled out, however, and three licenses were recently approved for floating power plants using natural gas.

Eskom also pledged to phase out old coal-fired power plants over the next three decades. But some still see no other way. Among them is Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, who has championed controversial “clean coal” techniques that are supposed to make it less polluting. Some 500,000 mining jobs are at stake.

Renewable energy solutions are being deployed, but the country, which has not invested much in research and development, wants to step up. The government has just awarded 25 contracts for projects totaling 50 billion rand (2.8 billion euros).

These 25 projects (12 wind farms and 13 photovoltaic power plants) entrusted to the private sector will bring the country’s electricity production capacity to 2,583 megawatts (MW), or 4.5% more than currently, the government said. Minister of Energy.

The first of these projects will not see the light of day until April 2024, at the earliest.

One of the goals of the Climate Conference is to get rich countries to live up to their pledges to raise at least $ 100 billion a year to support developing countries towards clean energy. Financially strapped South Africa is now eyeing a slice of the pie. “Better late than never,” sighs energy expert Chris Yelland.

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