Renewable Energy Jobs Will Not Offset the Loss of Coal Jobs in South Africa


  • I want to reflect, in my wholly personal capacity, on last week’s Windaba conference—particularly the plenary session on Thursday on the Just Transition – which slightly unnerved me.

The framing of the conversation around the job losses in South Africa’s energy transition struck me as paternalistic and detached from the South African reality. Treading this path will cause the renewable industry significant headache in the future and galvanise opposition against it.

It comes as no surprise that Mercia Grimbeek, Chair of the SAWEA Board, finally said the “quiet part” out loud during the session – that the renewable energy sector will never be able to create a surplus of new jobs to mitigate job loss from the closure of coal mines and Eskom power plants.

‘Renewables will not create a surplus of jobs’

I’ve studied the just transition aspects of South African energy policy for the past two years – research which involved looking through the various modelling done on jobs to be gained from a shift to renewables such as the Co-benefits, CSIR and Meridian studies. It was obvious from the start that renewables will not create a surplus of energy jobs.

There’s been a gradual shift within the studies (and the broader narrative) beginning with “renewables will create a net surplus of jobs” to “renewables will create a surplus of jobs countrywide, not in Mpumalanga”, to the current and late acceptance that renewables won’t be sufficient to cover the existing coal sector jobs in Mpumalanga. Now what? This is the question I’d like to hear asked and answered.

As the renewable industry, we can accept that there will be job losses in Mpumalanga all we want. But we can’t accept this on behalf of the country – on behalf of the workers in Mpumalanga that their jobs will be lost. Why was there no representative of the workers on the panel that could speak on their behalf? Where is the input from workers on what we need to do in the renewable industry?

The number of jobs is only one side of the story. We need to rid ourselves of the delusion that “construction jobs are permanent” repeated by both Grimbeek and Hein Reyneke of Mainstream Renewable Power in the context of alternative jobs for coal-sector workers. Hopping like “locusts” – according to Grimbeek – from site to site. Whether just a poor analogy or not, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

But it is a remarkably dire vision of the future. From my fieldwork in Mpumalanga, it is highly doubtful that current coal or power station workers in the region will accept the nomadic, unstable lifestyle that comes with being a ‘permanent’ construction worker. Workers hopping from site to site lose the friendships, family ties and roots that they currently have in their places of living.

Losing the conditions of service and benefits that the unions that represent them have spent decades fighting for, piecemeal. The framing reminds me of colonial and Apartheid paternalism which forced its predominantly black workforce to spend 11 months working on the mines, ironically in Mpumalanga/Gauteng, only returning home to spend a single month with their families and loved ones.

What is happening on the ground?

We don’t need complex modelling to see the harm that will be done to coal workers, indirect industries and their dependents in Mpumalanga by a shift to an insecure, construction-based way of life. We need to simply ask several questions:

  • What is the number of jobs currently created, industry-wide by the construction of renewable projects vs operations and maintenance?
  • What in the world does a “job year” even mean especially to workers and communities on the ground?
  • Have any coal workers benefitted from a decade of RE rollout?
  • Do the construction firms contracted by IPPs (Independent Power Producers) provide any form of security of tenure of employment or equivalent benefits (medical, pension etc)  to their workers currently?
  • Why is there nothing to show on the ground of the community development projects apart from the public exaltation of the amount of money spent or committed – despite some projects being in place for 10 years?

We can’t even track, let alone measure, what the IPPs claim to be reporting or what the country is paying them to do. Compounding these questions are the renewable IPPs remaining secretive regarding the relevant information on job-creation numbers and community development plans, to the extent that even the industry bodies do not know such information.

The narrative is that the industry has a good story to tell – why not make the good story publicly accessible in its glory? The answers, or lack of answers, are quite clear and make me believe that it will not be politically or socially palatable to transpose the business-as-usual approach of the current renewable industry onto current coal industry workers. They will not accept it.

It is time to address underlying socio-poitical issues

We’ve already seen the social unrest in communities where renewables are being built. We’ve seen the unrest in communities where coal mines and power plants are being shut down. We’ve seen NUMSA attempt to interdict the signing of BW3.5 and BW4 PPAs alongside the coal trucker strike of 2018.

Whether we can brush off these actions as political, or motivated by perverse interests, it’s clear that we need to address the underlying societal and political issues that have demonstrably stymied the renewable industry in the past – and address the brewing opposition against the further rollout of renewable energy in this country. Does anyone need to look beyond the recent Stage 6 loadshedding, caused by industrial action, to know what we are dealing with?

I try to think that there is no malicious ignorance at play, but the way the discussion was framed – and the mentality and thinking that underpins the sort of things said – leads me to believe there is an element of apathy involved: That it’s not our responsibility to mitigate the job losses we will directly benefit from – it’s government or the COP26 partnership that must spend money on socially cushioning any job losses. That the renewable energy industry seems so driven by profit that it only says the quiet part aloud of it being unable to create a surplus of jobs to cater for job losses in the coal sector now that the legislation is in place to ensure the transition to renewables is firmly at play.

Are we invested in the country’s transition and welfare or are we solely concerned with the profit the current pipeline of projects provides? Are we so insulated in Cape Town against the social upheaval, poverty, skyrocketing unemployment and the worsening inequality that currently occurs and will continue to occur in other parts of this country through an unjust transition, that this industry cannot be bothered to develop mitigation plans at all – and ensure decent work for those who will lose jobs resulting from it?

What does this all add up to? My reason for voicing these concerns is not to villainise the renewable industry. Nor do I want to be pigeonholed as a supporter of our coal-based generation system. Most people in South Africa – unless they are climate denialists or coal lobbyists – have accepted that the country will have to move away from coal as a primary source of electricity and concomitantly embrace renewable sources of generation.

The reasons for an accelerated renewable rollout are undeniable and well-known – they are more cost-effective, faster to build and more environmentally friendly. But, we must ensure the livelihoods of the existing coal workers in Mpumalanga are maintained – the renewables industry knows this. It’s been repeated and reiterated innumerable times over the past decade. But the industry continues to ignore it. Why are we not doing better when we clearly know better?

Author: Muhammed Lokhat

Muhammed is a Research Assistant: Electricity Policy & Just Transition at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

This article was originally published on ESI Africa and is republished with permission. 

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