Earthlife Africa Johannesburg (ELA Jhb) was created in 1988 in Johannesburg, and is an environmental and anti-nuclear organization. The group was a key to exposing how segregationist apartheid policies repeated themselves in South African environmental governance and thus how environmental injustice reinforces inequality. ELA Jhb is now acting as a reforming lobby, and is considered by some as a key voice in the emerging environmental justice movement. The organization has no link with any political parties.

We have an interview with two members of the Branch ELA Jhb : Dominique Doyle working with energy policy in the Sustainable Energy and Climate Change project, and Nerisha Baldevu working with the promotion of the renewable energies in the schools in the Sustainable Energy and Livelihoods Project.

ELA currently challenges the governments nuclear and fossil fuel policy, and promotes the Renewable Energies.

ELA wants to force the government and Eskom (the South African energy company) to comply with the environmental policies in many domains: the mining, the processing of coal, the production of electricity, and the usage of coal (its burning in individual kitchens contributes to the air pollution).For that matter they critically review the official environmental impact assessments produced for the new coal mines and coal-fired power stations.

ELA produces reports for lobbying in the interest of the environment, but does not hesitate to organize demonstrations in the streets to pressure the governments. And it tends to work, South Africa having a strong traditions with public demonstrations.

Energy situation of South Africa

South Africa’s energy production is very dependent on coal. Currently, it has a capacity of 43GW, of which 85% comes from coal, and about 5% each for gas turbines, hydro and nuclear. In the next years, some wind farms (in Western Cape), solar panels (in Northern Cape) and hydro (in KwaZulu Natal) will be built. But most importantly, two mega coal power plants are now in construction: Medupi in Limpopo, whose first unit is due for next year, and Kusile in Mpulamanga, due for 2018. Both will bring some 4.8GW to the national production capacity. Nominally, the share of renewables added to the mix in the next years is of 15%.

However, there are some drawbacks to the development of renewables. Currently, all the Renewable Energies installed in South Africa are foreign technologies, and what’s more, foreign owned. Consequently, there is no flow back of money to the country, and it is hard to explain the people their interest in developing these energies. Also, most of the rivers in South Africa are seasonal, making it more difficult to build hydro plants and integrate them in the grid. There are no Feed-In tariff in South Africa.

The share of the nuclear is 5% of the energy mix. South Africa started this energy back in 1982. There are rumors that the government wants to push the nuclear energy. But it cannot afford the development of the branch, so they’ll probably sub-contract the French or the Russian if the project goes forward.

By 2030, South Africa will not satisfy the developing countries commitments of the Kyoto protocol: to do so, it would need to close all the coal plants in the country except the two mega plants in construction, and there are 14 of them!

Electricity

80% of South Africa is electrified. The grid does not reach the most rural areas.

The electricity prices keep growing despite the current situation of the South African economy, which is going down, due to the many strikes and conflicts in the mining industry. The demand of electricity is currently going down. This increase of the price comes from construction cost of the two mega coal power plants, Medupi and Kusile. Although the World Bank is also financing these facilities, the construction is many years behind schedule. ELA is challenging the World Bank for that.

Eskom (in charge of most of the funding) being broke, the government has allowed foreign private companies to invest in these plants (such as GDF Suez).

Coal industry

South Africa is an important coal producer. However, the resources, that are mostly around Johannesburg (in the Gauteng province), are depleting. New deposits are to be exploited more in the North of the country, Limpopo. Limpopo is a dry region, with less than 400mm of rain per year. A pipeline sending water from Gauteng to Limpopo is in project.

On the other side of the border, Botswana is also starting to develop its coal industry. In fact it is the same deposit that is to be exploited in South Africa and Botswana. The border is made by the Limpopo river. Just imagine the tensions that will arise in this dry region when the mining industries of the two countries will compete for water!

The question asked by ELA is to know the objective of the two mega plants: are they really needed by the country to develop, or are they just built in order to protect the coal mining industry? The new coal resources are of bad quality for export, and so they would need to be exploited locally. It is also strange to notice that the companies investing in the Medupi plant belong to the ANC, the ruling party of South Africa.

Promotion of renewables

This project of ELA is brand new. The contract has been signed at the beginning of this year between Oxfam and the European Union, and Oxfam has chosen ELA to apply it in the Gauteng province. It should last three years, with a possibility to stop the project every year if it does not work. Other similar projects are conducted in the provinces of Western Cape and Limpopo.

The goal is to bring the acceptance of renewables in the communities, touching in particular the women and the poor people. After the acceptance, hopefully there will be a need of renewables from these population, thus replacing the usage of fossil resources.

The communities targeted by ELA around Johannesburg, that is to say urban or peri-urban.

ELA wants to bring ideas to these communities and form the people. The people are generally reluctant to such formation because it’s useless: local companies don’t care about sustainability, and foreign company which come for renewables hire workers directly from their country (like the Chinese typically do). The bet of ELA is to focus on the children, thinking that when they leave school, the renewables will then be developed.

If you want to go further, you can have a look on the website Banktrack. It’s a huge database recollecting information on the investments of the banks or other companies, in particular related to fossile energy projects.