On 31 January South Africans read that in six years’ time the coal supply will be insufficient to meet the country’s needs for the generation of electricity. This is not because we don’t have enough coal. Nor is it because the coal is of the wrong grade to run power stations. Nor is it because we are not mining it fast enough. Rather, it is because mining companies make greater profit selling our coal to Asian customers than on the local market.
In a country dependent on coal for 75% of its energy needs, the national electricity parastatal, Eskom, has warned that this insecurity of the supply of coal is one more factor in South Africa’s precarious energy future. With increasing demand for electricity for industrial and residential use, and a maintenance backlog that places the running of power stations under increasing strain, consumers have been warned to expect rolling blackouts as load-shedding is put in operation. We are grateful to the men and women who are dedicated to keeping the lights on all over the country, and who do all they can to prevent blackouts. It is often a very challenging task. But there is only so much they can do with aging infrastructure and limited capacity.
Returning to the question of the supply of coal for the power stations. With fewer than ten big players in the field, of which a number are multinationals concerned mainly with the bottom line of profit, it is clear that national energy interests don’t always receive first priority. The (November 2011) National Development Plan of the National Planning Commission dreams of “balancing domestic coal supply security with growth in exports.” It is diffcult to see how this can be done if profit-making is the only driving force. The plan recognises that coal reserves in the central basin of the country are diminishing, and that major infrastructural investment is needed to open new reserves. But this requires the expenditure of energy – ironically using more coal. Are the multinationals prepared to pay to install the infrastructure from which they hope to benefit?
A more intelligent solution to this quandary is addressed in chapter five of the plan which talks of a transition to a low-carbon economy. This is a technical way of saying that we want to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. From the years of international sanctions to boycott the apartheid government, we even developed an industrial process to “crack” coal to produce oil, because our oil dependency is so great. Using non-carbon sources of energy, such as wind, solar and wave energy, the country would obviously be in a more secure position, and we will also be pumping fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Among the worst offenders in Africa, South Africans should be serious about changing our fossil-fuel-dependent lifestyle. Other countries on the continent have a much smaller per-capita carbon footprint. Indeed some are among the lowest in the world. A few fortunate countries benefit from a wealth of hydroelectric power. Indeed, harnessing the hydroelectric potential of the mighty Congo River could conceivably provide the electricity needs for most of the subcontinent. This would cause major social upheaval because it would require the translocation of tens of thousands of people living in the river basin.
As the COP Summit in Durban in December 2011 demonstrated, we cannot wait for governments to agree or to legislate to mitigate climate change. Eskom has asked consumers to reduce their electricity consumption by 10% if the parastatal is to avoid the rolling blackouts which shook the country in 2008. But I believe we should go one step further. In the interests of the whole planet, we should reduce our use of all fossil fuels. This means that we reduce our electrical heating and lighting, certainly. But we also travel less, share vehicles, use smalller cars, install solar heating and electricity, try using wind generators, etc. These may all be less convenient, and initially more expensive, but in the long-term interests of our children and theirs, it is the only right thing to do. They are the first steps in a necessary new planetary ethic.
Peter Knox SJ