WHEN Medupi and Kusile were announced by our government in 2004 and 2007 respectively, the two coal-fired mega-projects were both seen as emblematic of South Africa’s democratic progress — key to the ruling alliance and its plans for the future.
The ruling labour-left coalition was at the height of its power. With its roots in the victorious anti-apartheid struggle, it had made no secret of its desire for a ‘mixed economic model’, in which a socialist command economy would prevail alongside the capitalist economy, and where the energy sector, would imitate policies from the days of the former Soviet Union. What could possibly go wrong?
According to Pretoria technocrats, a new era of cheap coal would herald in cheap and plentiful electricity with which to ‘build the nation’. Both consumers and workers would benefit. The latter from long-lived and extended public works programmes centred around coal, which in turn would drive salaries and feed households which had experienced some of the worst ravages of apartheid ‘separate development.”(1)
Thus it was that these two projects ballooned into costly engineering exercises, as complexity driven by the technocrats, bureaucrats and party officials, armed with Marxist texts and presidential directives, ruled the day. That Marxists tend to overtheorise economic problems, relying upon ideas such as ‘dialectical materialism’ and the ‘labour theory of value’ to arrive at their conclusions, in effect the triumph of ‘ideology over pragmatism’, has already been remarked upon.
What has not been said in the mainstream media is the manner in which unions such as COSATU, emboldened by socialist think-tanks such as the AIDC whose research is anything but lopsided (2), and with a culture of intolerance for differences in opinion, quixotically feed unemployment, climate change and the national debt. While the rest of the world is moving away from coal, South Africa’s coal ambitions have instead risen and include plans for at least several new coal plants such as Thabametsi, each one able to take our country into poll position as one of the top GHG emitters in the world.
Eskom’s coal-fired power plants persistently and significantly violates the air pollution limits in its licences.
“The main cause of its troubles” say Adjunct Professor Rod Crompton, is Eskom’s decision “to build two of the biggest coal fired generating plants in the world, (Medupi and Kusile). These plants are running way behind schedule, they’re over budget and the bits that are complete don’t work properly. They are probably the single largest disaster in South Africa’s economic history.”
Medupi is literally drowning in ash. The result of socialist bureaucrats implementing design changes via committee without sufficient input from scientists and engineers, whom they invariably ignore. This lack of concern for evidence-based research and scientific methodology in favour of ‘political education’ is not a new one, witness the failed Afro 4000 train debacle .
An editorial published by Engineering Weekly for example, debunks concerns from COSATU and others, surrounding loss of jobs due to renewables, and yet the union continues to demand a state-owned power utility on steroids, with little concern for loss of jobs in the broader economy and the tragic impact upon the livelihoods of those affected by outages and inefficiency.
“There is considerable support in South Africa” says Tobias Bishof-Niemz for the notion that a transition in the electricity system from coal to renewable energy will trigger a jobs bloodbath at both Eskom and the Mpumalanga coal mines. A detailed analysis of the job numbers, however, suggests quite the opposite. In fact, it points to there being at least 30% more jobs in a fleet comprising solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind farms when compared with an energy-equivalent coal fleet”
Meanwhile the brazen union federation staged a protest march this week, in response to the President’s plan to unbundle Eskom, in effect calling for Eskom and its mounting debt, to be supersized. Unbundling alone may not be enough to offset the crisis. Creating completely separate, independent and regional power utilities able to compete with each other would have a better chance of survival.
(1) See Rudzani Mudogwa’s recently published defense of coal which relies heavily on statements made by Gwede Mantashe.
(2) An article doing the rounds in the local press purporting to be by “Dr Sweeney, an AIDC visiting researcher, with the City University of New York’s ‘School of Labor and Urban Studies’,” claims splitting up Eskom ‘will result in privatization’. If one follows the logic of the argument presented, it is the West (including NY City) that is in the grip of rolling blackouts and massive debt run-up by Energy Companies since they were unbundled from the State. No citations, case examples nor evidence is provided by the ‘researcher’.
The Recycle Swap Shop operates from the premises of Hou Moed Centre, within the marginalised township of Zwelihle in the seaside town of Hermanus. Zwelihle’s children often struggle to get their hands on essential items that are often taken for granted by many; like toiletries and stationery, let alone more costly items such as shoes and school uniforms.
In 2003, the situation facing children and their families in the “squatter camp” visited was simply, desperate. The RSS concept was the answer.
Sweden is stepping up its recycling game. A Swedish municipality recently opened up what could be the world’s very first shopping mall dedicated to recycled, reused, and repaired goods.
The new mall, ReTuna Recycling Galleria, is in the city of Eskilstuna, Sweden. And it’s a one-stop-shop for sustainable products. The mall boasts over a dozen different stores focusing on everything from reused household goods to refurbished electronics—as well a restaurant, educational center, conference center, and an exhibition.
Joining France’s countless pastry shops and bakeries is a new kind of shop, which collects unwanted goods, repairing them if necessary, selling or upcycling them if possible, and, if all else fails, properly recycling them. And their numbers are growing.
Ressourceries, which could be translated as “resource shops,” operate something like Goodwill or the Salvation Army, accepting donations of used goods and reselling them at discounted prices. But the ressourceries take it to the next level by just about anything that’s brought through the door.
New York City’s Pop Up Repair Shop was a one-month experiment “aimed at breaking the cycle of use-and-discard goods.” It was the first step of a larger exploration of the issue, led by Sandra Goldmark, a set and costume designer and theater professor at Barnard College. Sandra and her husband Michael Banta, a theater production manager at Barnard, launched the shop using funds from an IndieGoGo campaign, which raised over $9,000.
“The most well-known example of items that are relatively simple to repair are clothes. Putting a patch on some jeans or a jumpers elbow, darning socks, these are some of the simplest repairs that most of us have experienced, if not done ourselves” says Recycling Expert UK
Once seen as a niche part of the fashion industry, being eco-conscious has rapidly become one of the hottest ‘topics’ of our time. From luxury fashion houses to fast-fashion retailers, and everything in between – more and more fashion companies are responding to mounting consumer interest and ‘going green.
There are literally hundreds of online projects involved in recycling and repair in one way or another.
The Bicycle Recycle Project at Seven Hills School in Nevada City, California, provides students hands-on learning of basic bicycle mechanical skills, reinforces the value of recycling, and provides the satisfaction of helping others.
Other recycle projects include an Electronics Exchange where consumer electronics may be repaired and swapped.
Meanwhile, the BBC bemoans the flipside: Why is it so hard to repair anything?
IMAGINE if our President were to announce that he had a solution to our energy crisis. From tomorrow we will start burning Platinum to make Electricity. Would you support a costly programme, with only 1% efficiency, and a huge waste problem? This is precisely what the Pressurised Light Water Reactor (PLWR) punted by Dr Kelvin Kemm, CEO of Nuclear Africa, represents. Costly 1950s technology, with so many problems and design elements which can go wrong that you have less than a 1/20 chance there will be an accident if you build one.
You have merely to watch any promotion video for the next generation reactor project known as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) to see why old PLWRs are inherently unsafe.
With so many mechanical issues which can go wrong, including hydrogen build-up which resulted in the Japanese Daichi Reactor exploding at Fukushima, followed by decay and meltdown of all the cores, which became unstable once the safety mechanisms failed. LFTR claims to have none of these weaknesses, since it uses liquid fuel not solid fuel, is not pressurised, and has a totally different decay chain and fuel cycle.
Unlike PLWR which is inherently unsafe, dependent upon human controls and core intervention 24/7, advocates of LFTR claim that if power to the plant operation is ever cut, only a refrigeration plug kept artificially frozen would melt, then the liquid fuel would merely drain into holding tanks and the plant would shut down with no possibility of a core meltdown. The economics of burning rocks (thorium is abundant and found in most rocks on the planet) instead of burning scarce metal which is mined and processed into solid fuel pellets, and produced by the nuclear industry in a scheme representing a Gillette-Razer Blade fuel model, are also key features.
As an environmentalist opposed to nuclear energy for over 25 years, I still have my reservations, since LFTR is basically a molten-salt reactor in which Thorium and Uranium are dissolved into Fluoride. I am fascinated however, by the claim that it could solve some of the waste problems which characterise conventional reactors, since it is far more efficient, and also capable of reprocessing the waste created by the PLWR industry.
As the evangelists claim, burning Uranium is like burning Platinum, and with less than 1% efficiency, the old technology from the 1950s is really a dead-end road, considered useful only because it creates transuranic products such as plutonium which the military find interesting. LFTR cannot produce such weapons-grade material. Which is a big plus so far as proliferation is concerned. There are however some short-lived fission products such as Protactinium* to worry about, but none of the security problems inherent to producing elements above U235, which are man-made and do not exist in nature.
LFTR according to its pundits, is also capable of producing bismuth and molybdenum used for medical purposes, these are alpha particle emitters as opposed to beta-particle emitters.
As an anti-nuclear activist I do not think LFTR has solved all the safety problems, and the design certainly needs a lot more debate and consideration. But lets take a look at the kind of plant Kemm wants to import, based on the designs which produced Koeberg and Pelindaba:
Koeberg, South Africa’s only commercial PLWR suffers from ongoing emissions of radioactive isotopes such as strontium-90 and caesium-137 which exceed European Safety guidelines. Local safety standards had to be lowered by the apartheid government in order to accommodate the emissions from the plant. Bioaccumulation of isotopes and contamination of nearby crops are a major health risk when it comes to wheat, fish and dairy. The isotopes end up in human bone, causing cancer of the blood.
On 11 November 2005 the plant underwent an emergency shut down following an incident related to power controls within the plant. The incident is thought to be a routine SCRAM.
Then on the evening of the 23 November 2005, a routine inspection of the backup safety system revealed a below-specification concentration of an important chemical, which had resulted in a controlled shutdown of the reactor.
On Christmas Day 2005 an 8 cm (3 in) loose bolt found its way into the rotor of Unit 1, causing damage to some of the 105 bars that line the device, and putting the generator out of action for months.
In 2010, 91 workers at Koeberg were contaminated by Cobalt-58 , evidence of breeding.
South Africa’s non-commercial nuclear industry has had its fair share of emergencies.
The deaths of workers such as Harold Daniels at Pelindaba, who died after fighting a 1996 ‘radiation fire’, have never been adequately explained, the full facts were never investigated, despite promises from government. On 6 March 2009, a leak of radioactive gases from Pelindaba was reported by NECSA. Abnormal levels of gamma radiation associated with Xenon and Krypton gases (two gases which were problems at Chernobyl) were detected, causing an evacuation of staff and an emergency to be declared
The issue of poor communities exposed to long-lived radioactive waste from dumping by the industry, including communities of Kommegas and Namaqualand, continue to mar the claims and promises of clean energy made by persons such as Kamm.
South Africa wasted some R10bn on a failed PBMR reactor programme, before canning the project, a highly expensive and costly white-elephant, dependent upon the taxpayer for annual bail-outs and the final right-down. Now the Zuma administration is contemplating embarking on yet another costly nuclear exercise, without so much as a safety and cost-benefit inquiry. The numbers do not add up.
Renewables will always be cheaper and safer, beating non-renewables over time. The same may be said of LFTR.
Nuclear Energy is not the Solution.
*Other problems encountered in early breeder reactor tests, are tritium and corrosion.
OPPOSITION leaders, including Musi Maimane and Mosiuoa Lekota have called for an end to the anti-privatisation fiasco, but the solutions on the table need not entail the wholesale privatisation of state assets.
Moving South Africa forward to a better economic future could include the creation of an energy commons. In this scenario Eskom would become merely the operator of the national grid. Allowing the generation of electricity to form the basis for new enterprises, each of which could compete for access to the consumer, by providing a host of services, including the provisioning of technology.
Think of mobile phone companies and the convergence which has occurred on the Internet. New virtual electricity companies could provide consumers with choices including access to dishwashers, microwave ovens and other household technology — choices in renewable energy, women-friendly companies and other solutions that are just not available under the current system.
An energy commons that served as a repository of energy for the good of the nation, would allow greater competition at the same time as maintaining government control over the fiscus. Thus un-economical energy systems and bankrupt energy companies would be allowed to whither away and die. Only the most efficient energy providers would be allowed to survive, removing the need for annual bail-outs.
Essentially what South Africans (and especially small business) require the most, is cost-effective wattage hours. But doing this would require the removal of the inefficient, apartheid-era, extractive and exploitative sale of bulk electricity, the system which has been the backbone of municipalities since the days of race segregation. Under the current regime, Eskom sells electricity to local municipalities who in turn sell energy to the consumer, resulting in a profit pyramid scheme.
Creating a more horizontal energy system that is localised and avoids wastage associated with highly centralised projects and transmission over distance, (some 6-15% of electricity is lost this way) presents a number of gains for the consumer. Instead of draining our economy, we would see new enterprises, greater employment and a bigger tax-base.
Allowing municipalities to invest in new energy start-ups, in the same way as the government owns shares in Vodacom, could provide a way out of this cash cow problem. Instead, Minister Nene is now selling these “non-core stakes” to cover his administration’s bail-out of moribund and inefficient state-enterprises.
Think of the national grid as the backbone, and the energy commons as a pool of energy into which energy providers contribute, thus providing access to basic services, and then where value-added services are bolted to this mix, is one way of looking at the solution.
A 1998 White Paper, recommended that Eskom be split into separate generation and transmission companies to “assist the introduction of competition into electricity generation”. Reform of a bloated “vertically integrated” monopoly that controls electricity supply from start to finish has been stymied by labour demands that boil down to maintaining a dirigiste economy in the form of state capitalism.
South Africa inherited the apartheid state apparatus, which included Eskom and Telkom. These two monopolies are government-run corporate entities known as parastatels. Both are dependent on annual bail-outs from the treasury.
The cost of the latest Eskom bail-out has been included in the 2015 budget announced by Minister Nene at a whopping R23bn, and this comes upon rate hikes and increases in the cost of Eskom services to the consumer.
Nene’s rationale for maintaining the monopoly is exactly the same rationale as previous ANC administrations: “30% of South African’s do not enjoy access to electricity, Eskom is the only way we can provide them with services”. The policy of maintaining an energy monopoly which is responsible for most energy generation, while gradually opening up the market to a minority of new Independent Power Producers, has meant this figure has remained unchanged. In other words, like our unemployment figures, the percentage of South African’s without electricity remains the same, since enterprise development is not able to keep up with the countries increase in population.*
Another factor is the peculiar ideological focus of the ruling alliance. The ruling party is in reality a centre-left alliance of union and business factions. The ANC thus balances its business interests with the interests of unions and the SACP resulting in a beast not unlike Dr Dolittle’s pushmi-pullyu. The downgrading of Eskom’s debt and the inquiry into its operations (there is only one electrical engineer on Eskom’s board) all point to a crisis in South Africa’s energy sector.
At the end of the day it is the consumer who stands to benefit from greater choice in energy providers that would be provided by a more efficient energy commons.
* South Africa’s population grew by 15/5% since the ANC came to power in 1994. A one-child-per-family policy as implemented in China and the basis for the country’s current economic success, could prevent the increase of the population from 52 million to 100 million over the next two decades.