Residents living near one of South Africa’s largest coal-fired power stations fear their livelihoods will be at risk if the power station is closed or repurposed as part of South Africa’s transition from coal to cleaner sources of electricity like solar and wind.
As one of the world’s biggest polluters due to its heavy reliance on coal to produce electricity, South Africa’s plans to phase out its coal-fired power station in favour of green energy.
It recently secured at least $8.5 billion in funding to repurpose the coal-fired power plants to renewable energy sites producing solar and wind power.
The plan has been welcomed and is being funded by western countries including Germany, U.S and the UK.
It was widely endorsed at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt where the country signed agreements for some parts of the loan funding.
The country’s first power station to be decommissioned, Komati Power Station in Mpumalanga, is targeted for repurposing for solar and wind power generation.
Located about 2km from the Duvha Power Station, Masakhane township is home to thousands of residents, with many having migrated from various parts of the country to settle closer to the power station in search of economic opportunities.
The community is also located on the backdrop of Mooifontein and Wolvekrans open-cast collieries, which supply tons of coal to the power station.
The primary sources of income for community members are directly and indirectly linked to coal mining and the 3600 megawatts power station, ranging from transportation and food industries to contract work inside the power station. They continue to use coal on a daily basis for cooking and heating.
Selby Mahlalela moved from his Nelspruit home in the same province of Mpumalanga to Masakhane in 2006, and has been doing various jobs as contract worker for the power utility Eskom since then, doing maintenance-related jobs.
“It is the one place that the majority of people from here rely on for job opportunities, despite them not being permanent workers. This happens a lot especially when there are shutdowns or maintenance work. The people get to have some,” said Mahlalela.
But the transition remains a contentious issue, even within President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet.
This week, energy minister Gwede Mantashe told lawmakers that the transition to cleaner energy should not happen at the cost of people’s livelihoods and the country’s energy security.
“I am one of the people who say, we can have a transition. But that coal is not about just numbers, it is about human beings. It is (about) ten towns in Mpumalanga,” said Mantashe.
Silindile Kheswa is among those who have benefited from short-term contract work and skills development by working at the power station, and fears the transition may spell the worst for those not able to get jobs in renewable energy projects.
“Some of our brothers are involved in the trucking of coal, transporting it to various power stations. So if you are saying no more coal, that means we can’t put food on the table,” said Kheswa.
The Duvha power station is one of the 15 coal fired powered power stations operated by the power utility Eskom. and has faced many breakdown recently, contributing to the country’s rolling power blackouts.