Sapping clean, green future of power
24 July 2016 - 02:00
You have to feel a bit sorry sometimes for sincere and hard-working ministers like Rob Davies at trade and industry and Ebrahim Patel at economic development.I criticise them often because I think their policies are wrong and unproductive. But their diligence, integrity and sense of purpose are above reproach - and in modern South Africa these valuable qualities are in short supply.They were the first people I thought of when I read the news that Eskom had decided to pull the plug on the state's successful effort to encourage private investors to build new renewable-energy plants.So far some R200-billion has been spent building wind and solar power facilities. Drive from Port Elizabeth to George and you can't miss the hundreds of huge windmills along the route.story_article_left1Not only do they generate new electricity silently and without any damage to the environment, but they have triggered the rapid growth of a whole new manufacturing industry; South Africans find jobs making photovoltaic panels and huge propellers to turn new generators. It is literally the only home-grown industrial success in the era of President Jacob Zuma.The hope was to grow it further and make South Africa an export base for an exciting new "green" industry.Now all that is up in the air. Eskom has told the government it will not buy or transmit on its power lines any more new green power beyond what is already installed. It says it doesn't "need" the power and that, anyway, it is only available during the day and not at night when power use surges.The government has been so utterly silent in the face of what is clearly a disastrous and very stupid decision that one has to assume it supports it.The Zuma administration is in thrall to Eskom and its newish CEO, Brian Molefe. He has managed to ensure no load-shedding for almost a year, leading Zuma, on a recent visit to Eskom's head office in Johannesburg, to dance before the TV cameras chanting "We've won, we've won".But what has been won?Not, it is now clear, a future as a leader in a modern new technology that the whole world will one day adopt.Davies must be shocked. Here is what he writes in the current iteration of his industrial policy action plan: "In the immediate term, the problem is very simple: the high carbon intensity in the South African context is a result of our reliance on coal used to generate electricity."This is now very well recognised, and the challenge has begun to be addressed by the adoption of (recently updated) Integrated Resource Plan (IRP 2010), which aims to reduce our reliance on coal used in electricity generation to below 50% by 2030. The IRP 2010 plans significant electricity infrastructure expansion and with that comes a massive opportunity to manufacture componentry for renewable energy and demand-side management equipment, where we have already seen new significant investment and growth."story_article_right2So goodbye Mr Massive Opportunity. And here is Patel, painstakingly plotting a new growth path for the economy six years ago: "The new growth path targets 300,000 additional direct jobs by 2020 to green the economy, with 80,000 in manufacturing and the rest in construction, operations and maintenance of new environmentally friendly infrastructure. The potential for job creation rises to well over 400,000 by 2030."All that is now underwater, a victim of the government's inability to contemplate a prosperous industrial future for our country. It is, instead, addicted to the grotesque proposition that it can and must somehow repeat the kind of industrialisation under Afrikaner nationalism that gave birth to Eskom in the first place.But times and technology have forever changed industry and what the world needs.Wanting to recreate an Eskom now, or a state-owned steel industry, or a ship-building industry or even a bank, is a little like, in 2016, sitting down to invent a device capable of continuous motion that could transport citizens to work. The ANC's economics transformation subcommittee, after consulting the branches, already has a name for it. They're calling it The Wheel.The fact is the government is incapable of imagining that green technology will develop, and fast. Huge environmentally friendly storage capacity is just around the corner, so let's dump the whole thing quickly and get on with that trillion-rand nuclear order. There are a lot of people in the queue waiting to eat. We'll catch up with the world later.