Home PodcastJulie Alli The answer to loadshedding: Is it coal or clean energy?

The answer to loadshedding: Is it coal or clean energy?

by Zahid Jadwat

The bulk of South Africa’s electricity is generated with coal. [Picture: Eskom]


It is peak time on a Friday afternoon in one of South Africa’s hubs: Johannesburg. I am returning from a visit to the bookshop, my first time going out in a while since everything is done online these days.

A highveld thunderstorm douses the bustling metropolis. I had forgotten the madness of traffic on a Friday afternoon. Traffic when electricity-deprived robots stand idle in the midst of frenzied hooting and cussing. Traffic on a rainy day. It is a cocktail for disaster.

And disaster it nearly was. “Did you see that?” the Uber driver asked, peering from his seat, jolting me out of contemplation. “No,” I said, always late to see the drama. Across the intersection, some madman decided they would hazard a dart across the intersection, nearly swiping a car or two with.

Fate may have spared lives that day, but this was a typical example of how things could go haywire when the lights are off. This is not to mention the billions of Rand lost each day to South Africa’s rolling blackouts.

It is not just two hours – or 12 – without WiFi, it is a bleeding economy and livelihoods dying a slow, painful death. It is somebody meeting the Angel of Death because urgent medical attention was unavailable because the lights were off. It is everything that goes wrong when the backbone of an economy is snapped.

But what are the solutions? “Go green,” say the environmental activists. “No!” boom the coal fundamentalists. The government acknowledges the need to transition from a heavy reliance on coal for electricity generation, but hardly does as much as it could to make it happen.

South Africa is the seventh largest coal producer in the world. The use of coal in the region goes all the way back to the Iron Age. To place into perspective its reliance on coal to power the nation, Eskom’s 13 coal-fired stations generate 80% of its electricity, renewable energy being just 7%.


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The electricity minister

One of the solutions to the crisis, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in his SONA this year, was to appoint a minister of electricity. Kgosientso Ramokgopa is now responsible for coordinating the government’s response to the energy crisis.

The electricity minister, in his first three weeks, started on a very good footing,” says Zakhele Madela, a social and energy expert at South African Energy Forum (SAEF). But Madela is disappointed that Ramokgopa seemingly backtracked on a commitment to ageing coal power stations.

“Where we lose him,” he says, “is him buckling under pressure and abandoning his own initiatives that he had started. He made some very good pronouncements about how unreliable wind and solar are”.

The bottom line for Madela: “He is now reverting to the behaviour of politicians and clowns”. His solution to the energy crisis? Ramokgopa must follow Germany’s lead, he says, referring to that country’s decision to revive coal power generation in the face of its own energy woes.

“Where we are in South Africa, Germany would have been if it had not acted quickly. Germany has gone back to power its economy with coal and revived power stations that were closed for many years.”


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Transition from coal

In 2021, South Africa accepted a R131-billion climate financing pledge from several European countries – Germany one of them – and the United States. The idea was to wean the coal powerhouse off its extreme dependence on coal. That was then.

Now, a Russian invasion of Ukraine prompted frantic efforts on the European side to secure energy. In South Africa, a protracted bout of loadshedding has left people pondering when the lights would be on rather than when they would be off.

Eskom uses over 90 Mt of coal each year, with disastrous consequences for the environment. Respiratory illnesses, lung disease and smog are just some of the evil effects of burning coal. Environmentalists have been adamant the only solution is alternative energy.

“The minister must make decisions that are in the best interest of the economy,” says Otsile Nkadimeng, a climate activist at Fridays For Future in Gauteng. He adds that any decision from the minister of electricity must cater to “the best interest of the position we are in at the moment. The position we are in tells us – it screams to us – that we must bring clean energy onto the grid.”

While Madela is convinced there is no other choice but to revive the ageing coal fleet used by Eskom, Nkadimeng could not disagree more fervently.

“Bringing clean energy onto the grid is a matter of urgency and it needs to be fast-tracked on Eskom’s side. [the] minister of electricity and the minister of mineral resources and energy seem to be peddling to the establishment of the coal and fossil fuel industry,” he says.

He says the desire to appease well-established players in the coal industry have blinded the South African government to opportunities existing within the transition. For climate activists like Nkadimeng, it really is a no-brainer. Renewable energy is quicker to bring online, cheaper and far better than an ageing coal-fired fleet, he says.

“It makes no sense that we have an energy system that is ageing, a coal-fired fleet that has to be retired, that was poorly managed and is causing higher levels of loadshedding in the country.”

He also does not believe it is too late to flip the switch on renewable energy. In fact, he suggests it is inevitable.

“It is not too late. Eskom and our electricity system can and will eventually need to prioritise clean and renewable energy. We already have 6000MW of clean energy on the grid – the most stable on the grid. If we want to supply stable electricity to the people of South Africa, we must prioritise the bringing online of clean energy.”

Madela, on the other hand, questions the bona fides of climate activists and accuses them of fear-mongering. Meddle with the status quo and you jeopardise the economy, he warns.

“We are running with a conversation but we don’t even know whose conversation it is. This fear-mongering of climate change. Because of the fear of climate change, we now have to abandon coal even if it comes at the expense of the economy.”

But Nkadimeng says the current system “is not a worker’s paradise”. He points out the thousands of deaths resulting from air pollution every year.

“The reality remains that the current system, which runs off of coal, is not a worker’s paradise. We have over 10 000 annual air pollution deaths as a result of the way in which we generate electricity.”

There is no doubt that a transition would shake the status quo. There will be winners and losers. There will be proponents and resistors. But the fact remains that South Africa, in its own little corner at the tip of Africa, has a crippling energy crisis. The world, at large, has a pressing climate crisis.

We need solutions. We need leadership. There must be a willingness to accept the reality and consideration of all options. This should lead us to an end to the crisis, if the powers that be are willing to give some to get some. And if they have the nation’s best interests at heart.


Julie Alli and Zakhele Madela also discussed the possibility of a total collapse of the energy grid in South Africa. Listen to the full discussion here.

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