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South Africa's Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, addresses the African Mining Indaba 2023 conference in Cape Town on Feb. 6.SHELLEY CHRISTIANS/Reuters

A powerful South African cabinet minister has sharply criticized a Canadian-funded energy transition project, calling for the “urgent” reversal of plans to replace a coal-fired power plant with renewable energy sources.

The controversy over the energy project, which received a US$47.5-million concessional loan from a Canadian government climate fund, is a sign of the political complexities that have hobbled the transition to clean energy in many parts of the developing world.

The development of solar and wind energy at the Komati power plant, where coal had been burned for decades, was seen as a showcase for the global climate strategy. South Africa’s state-owned electricity utility, Eskom, has described it as one of the world’s biggest repurposing projects for a coal-fired power plant.

But that showcase now seems in jeopardy. South African Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, one of the most influential leaders in the ruling African National Congress party, said on Tuesday that the Komati climate project would cost too many jobs and would damage the country’s fragile electricity supply.

“This is totally illogical, this is unjust,” Mr. Mantashe told a Johannesburg radio station.

“Extending the lives of coal power stations is necessary,” he said. “Recommissioning Komati is quite urgent, because it is a good power station and it was giving us a good level of energy availability.”

With an election approaching next year, and with the ANC under heavy pressure to resolve the country’s devastating energy crisis, the governing party has decided to extend the life of some of the older coal plants that were scheduled to be taken out of service – even though the extended use of coal will endanger South Africa’s climate pledges.

Rotating blackouts have plagued the country for years, escalating so rapidly this year that electricity cuts have been imposed almost every day, often causing outages of up to 12 hours a day. The cuts have severely damaged the economy, with forecasts that growth will slide to 0.1 per cent this year.

Analysts say the energy crisis is largely a result of corruption and dysfunction at the state electricity supplier, where maintenance was repeatedly deferred and attempts to introduce renewable energy were stalled by the ANC’s powerful coal lobby.

The government’s decision to keep using the old coal plants is bad news for South Africa’s much-touted Western-funded US$8.5-billion energy transition program, which was announced at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow and was intended to be a model for similar transitions in other countries in Africa and Asia.

The Komati green energy project was seen as the first step in the broader transition in South Africa. But there are now serious doubts that the US$8.5-billion program will go ahead, with so many sensitive political interests at stake, including the 2024 election campaign, the energy shortages, and the ANC’s coal interests.

Mr. Mantashe, a former coal miner and mineworker union leader who says he has accepted the unofficial title of “coal fundamentalist,” has been at the forefront of the resistance to renewable energy. He has complained that the West wants South Africa to be a “guinea pig” for renewable energy – even though South Africa is far behind most countries in its energy transition.

In his radio interview on Tuesday, he complained that stronger countries are pressing weaker economies into the transition, regardless of economic logic. “We’ve moved to the extreme in giving environmentalists veto power over development,” he said.

But in choosing the Komati project as his target, Mr. Mantashe is defending a 62-year-old coal station that was increasingly expensive to maintain and operate. The last of its nine units was commissioned in 1966, mothballed in 1989, brought back into service in 2009 and shut down again last October. At the time when it was revived in 2009, it was expected to be able to operate for only 15 years.

Mr. Mantashe has argued that Komati will produce less power and fewer jobs under the new clean-energy project. But on Tuesday, the numbers he cited for Komati’s potential power output and job creation as a coal station seemed to be grossly exaggerated.

By the end of its life last year, the station was contributing only 121 megawatts of power. Under the current project, the station is being converted into a renewable generation site with 150 MW of solar, 79 MW of wind and 150 MW of storage batteries.

Mr. Mantashe said the coal station would provide 2,000 jobs, compared with 200 jobs at the renewable energy site. But there were only 276 employees at the coal station by 2002, according to South Africa media reports.

In addition to the Canadian concessional loan, the Komati project is receiving a US$439.5-million loan from the World Bank and a US$10-million grant from a multi-donor energy sector fund at the World Bank. The bank said last year that the Komati project would result in lower carbon emissions and improved air quality around the plant, which is located in South Africa’s coal-mining belt in Mpumalanga province.

World Bank and Canadian officials did not respond to queries from The Globe and Mail about Mr. Mantashe’s comments on Tuesday.

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