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MIKE TEKE: Transition from coal is required, but must be just and managed well

Beyond the domestic supply of the fossil fuel to Eskom for electricity generation, exports remain vital

It takes some courage to write about coal and its future if you are suggesting it has a future. I have plucked up the courage to do it.

In Kwa Thema, where I grew up, the coal merchants were among the people who managed and led businesses when apartheid was rife, whether small operators with a horse and a cart, mid-tier operators with two tonne bakkies, or big operators with large trucks.

As a young boy I thought coal was for household heating. Why would I have known of a power station if there was no electricity in my home?

Almost every home in Kwa Thema had a coal stove. I remember my uncle struggling to raise money to buy a new “smokeless” coal stove. The concern about the impact of coal on the environment and health has long been with us.

In 1912, New Zealand’s Rodney and Otamatea Times printed an article titled “Coal Consumption Affecting Climate”. It warned us that earth’s atmosphere was changing because of the ramping up of the production of fossil fuels.

In those days the Witbank mines attracted employees far and wide. Literally and figuratively, they fuelled SA’s economy.

So why do we still believe in coal?

We are a country well-endowed with mineral resources and coal is abundant. In 2020 the country produced 252-million tonnes of coal, generating sales of R133bn. About 36% of this value was exported, generating foreign exchange. The industry employed 91,000 people, who in turn earned about R1.7bn. Royalties alone from coal mining paid to the fiscus amounted to about R1.7bn.

SA will continue to depend on coal for 60 more years, but the level of its dependence will reduce significantly as we usher in renewables and other forms of energy generation. Our economy will thrive and be versatile once we get the energy mix right.

Beyond the domestic supply of coal to Eskom for electricity generation, coal exports remain a strong area of focus.

Climate change and global warming is real. SA is aware of the risks and that coal contributes to this effect. The need to change is imperative. This must be a just and managed transition.

Activists lobby

SA’s Integrated Resources Plan says that from 2019 about 72% of our electricity was generated by coal. By 2030, if all goes according to plan, only 43% of our electricity will be coal generated. The remaining 57% will come from solar, wind, hydro, nuclear and other clean forms of energy. This change must be embraced by all, even though it is daunting.

On a 2019 visit to coal mines in the US I saw how not to do it. While the US embraces gas, solar, wind and other clean energy, activists lobby for the closure of coal-fired plants. This creates tensions that sap energy and promote acrimonious relationships.

The oddity is that the US closes only coal-fired power plants and not coal mines. Their coal mines continue to export coal to other countries. If they wish to discontinue the use of coal as a country they must also stop exporting coal.

SA coal miners fully understand that the role of coal in electricity generation will continue to diminish. But it must be managed responsibly.

As coal miners we must acknowledge that we must not leave the next generations with a destroyed environment. We are not climate-change denialists. Rather, we are climate-change realists, intent on pursuing a path that does the right thing, for as many people as possible. SA did not pull out of the Paris agreement as the US did.

Manage emissions

The various stakeholders should work together to look for opportunities to create new jobs to replace those that will be lost during this transition, through reskilling for the new world of renewables and a cleaner energy environment. Several coal-mining companies aim to diversify, to look for acquisitions in the renewables space.

Some people think the term “clean coal” is a paradox. At first glance that may be, but there is such a thing as “cleaner” coal. Recently developed coal-fired power stations globally are equipped with great technologies that manage the negative effects on our environment. Old coal-fired power stations can be retrofitted with technologies to manage carbon emissions.

Technologies such as carbon capture utilisation and storage are being extensively investigated and researched. Would a coal-fired power plant such as Lagisza, Poland, work on the African continent to take advantage of the abundance of coal? Lagisza is known as the world’s first plant to use supercritical circulating fluidised bed technology, which puts out extremely low emissions.

The World Coal Association and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Centre for Energy are collaborating to support the advancement of clean-coal technologies in the Asean region. It is not all doom and gloom for the coal industry. Through innovation and forward thinking, we can and will find ways to use our resources responsibly.

Coal will remain central to our electricity generation for decades. But we should take along our citizens as we transcend from fossil fuel dependency to more sustainable, environmentally friendly forms of electricity generation. Beyond reskilling of workforces, it is imperative to educate citizens regarding this transition.

The coal industry must embrace this change to assist the world to achieve its goals related to the combating of global warming.

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