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The political economy of South Africa’s energy transition for outsiders

In South Africa, the political drift is towards favouring ‘low-carbon options’ and engineering a distracting skirmish between coal and renewables technologies to keep the renewables camp busy. And quietly, gas, nuclear and coal is being pushed.

“A man who is used to acting in one way never changes, he must come to ruin when the times, in changing no longer is in harmony with his ways.’’ (Machiavelli, The Prince)

As the head of a new foundation, called the African Climate Foundation, I get recurrent questions asked by experts, development finance institutions and others from outside South Africa, as to what is going on with South Africa’s energy transition and the once very laudable Renewables Independent Power Producers Programme (REIPPP).

The very short answer is, whether they believe it or not, that it is not the only transition on the go and the low-carbon transition includes for now: clean coal, gas and nuclear. Well, they may all have their green-house gas merits, but it is to be seen if they will be cheap, quick and lead to deep decarbonisation of South Africa’s electricity sector.

Renewables is a nascent industry – with great promise – not only as low-cost energy solutions, but in the longer run would undoubtedly have laid the foundation for new industrial and manufacturing capability.

As with every energy carrier, coal, gas, nuclear and renewables, local content provisions and industrial capability grow with time – they take decades, but require a structured and sustained policy enabling an environment of consistent installed capacity for this to be realised.

The policy hostility towards renewables, which goes against the government’s own Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), seems to be garnished with a combination of outlandish conspiracy theories that the greenies are trying to capture the energy policy of government and all sorts of “alternative facts” about renewables are being shouted out from the bully pulpit.

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