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Decommissioning of power stations: Anxiety and confusion over energy transition

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Eskom’s Medupi power station. Photo: Simphiwe Mbokazi African News Agency (ANA)

By Brian Kamanzi, Lutfiyah Suliman and Basani Baloyi

As of September, 2022 Komati power station – one of South Africa’s oldest coal fired-power plants – is due for decommissioning as the first major milestone towards Eskom’s energy transition plans.

Born from agreements at an international level which recognise the urgency of mitigating the drivers of climate change, South Africa has set course to shift to a low-carbon economy.

Most recently, a Just Energy Transition Transaction Partnership (JETTP) valued at R131 billion, was entered into negotiations with support from France, the UK, US and German governments to accelerate the transition away from coal-use.

Many questions have been raised on the potential conditions and beneficiaries of the agreement, which will consist of a combination of grants and structured loans. While transition finances are discussed behind closed doors, affected workers on the shop-floor have been left uncertain about their futures.

Komati’s five-interconnected generators were commissioned from 1961 to 1966 at a cost of R80 million for 1GW of capacity by the apartheid government. The plant employs over 600 workers spread across managerial, technical maintenance, general worker, cleaner and garden roles.

About half the workers on site are contracted with outsourced companies with a high presence of labour brokers. A significant proportion of the workforce have held positions on site for over 10 years and are represented by the majority union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The move to transition has created anxiety and confusion among workers around their prospects for the future.

“This process started three or four years ago. At the time decommissioning was raised we thought there would be proper consultation, but we have not been given the opportunity. Our concern is that we do not know what is going to happen to us as workers, and we have already been promised things which have not materialised. It makes us sceptical,” said Komati NUM shop steward David Fankomo.

The operational plan for the energy transition has been put forward as the “Eskom Just Energy Transition” roadmap, with the Komati project as its flagship initiative. The decommissioning plans include repowering and repurposing activities.

Repowering efforts aim to make use of the existing transmission infrastructure to reduce the cost and complexity of connecting new plants onto the grid. This could include a combination of LNG gas, renewable energy and battery storage projects. Repurposing aims to maximise other resources at the site to perform new functions producing social and economic value.

This could include a skills training centre, microgrid assembly facility and a range of new mixed land-use farming initiatives (aquaponics and agrivoltaics). A Just Transition, a principle stemming from and driven by the international trade union movement in its least progressive interpretations, requires that the livelihoods of those most affected by the energy transition be taken into account in the shift to a low-carbon, climate-adaptive and resilient society and economy.

This consideration for livelihoods and well-being is the crucial difference between merely achieving a technological transition from fossil energy to renewable energy, and a just transition, which develops pathways to sustainable energy with and for society.

Against the backdrop of South Africa’s international commitments to mitigation, (in the form of our Nationally Determined Contribution, and national policy in the form of our Integrated Resource Plan, we must interrogate our commitments to the justice element as an integral part of any decommissioning plans.

Key to this interrogation is how the decommissioning process negotiates job losses, decent work, social protection and social dialogue. The energy transition affects not just workers, but entire communities which have become both directly and indirectly dependent on mining activities for their livelihoods.

As such the impacts of job losses and uncertainty extend even beyond the borders of mining towns, and how Eskom negotiates with labour in the decommissioning of Komati sets a precedent for how workers and communities can expect their concerns to be acknowledged and incorporated into decommissioning planning.

A just transition must also be cognisant of the circumstances that wide-scale labour brokerage has exacerbated; with job security eroded, and limited (but crucial) existing social protections, mining communities are left with limited resources to weather uncertainty and retrenchments.

However, for workers in Komati, talk of a just energy transition is a big ruse. What is actually at play is a neoliberal structural adjustment pacified by rhetoric of a green agenda.

With weeks to go until plant closure at the Komati coal-fired power plant in September, 2022 workers lament that they are yet to be consulted about Eskom’s transitional plans. This has emerged through workshops held with workers by the Institute for Economic Justice in collaboration with the NUM Komati branch.

While actions towards an energy transition are advancing, with Eskom’s release of request for proposals and requests for interests for the Komati plant, workers have no clue about what will happen to their livelihood come September. Workers are asking, “What is the status of my employment from September? What are the minimum requirements for transfers to other facilities as part of the decommissioning process?”

The anxiety on the ground expressed by these workers is in sharp contrast to the lip service being paid on national platforms and bills with rhetoric that a just transition constitutes “decent work and sustainable livelihoods”, and that workers and communities are not left behind.

The president of COP26’s visit to the Komati power plant, one of many stops, in support of work to implement the JETTP, is a farcical display of this deceitful performance of justice. His message was that “a clean, just energy transition not only delivers enhanced climate action, it will help create new jobs, economic growth, clean air and a resilient, prosperous future”.

The South African (JTTP) puts fairness at the heart of the transition from coal to clean energy…” He posed for pictures with workers, yet workers have not been engaged on transitional plans. This shows that the Just Transition is in fact just a transition.

Kamanzi, Suliman and Baloyi are from the Institute for Economic Justice.

This article was first published on IOL.