Shift to renewable energy threatens 120,000 South African jobs

A drive to shift South Africa’s electricity production to renewable energy is threatening as many as 120,000 jobs at coal mines and power plants that use the fuel, a research consultancy said.

In addition the transition could threaten economic activity in four municipalities with a population of more than 2.3 million people. In the Emalahleni municipal area coal-related activities make up 44% of the economy. Most of the country’s coal is mined in the municipal areas which lie in the eastern province of Mpumalanga.

“Because these municipalities are so highly reliant on the coal value chain activities this is going to leave a huge gap,” said Muhammed Patel, an economist at Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies, on a webinar on Tuesday. “This is a key concern for South Africa given our high levels of unemployment, inequality and poverty.”

South Africa produces almost all of its electricity from a suite of coal-fired power plants run by Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. in the eastern province of Mpumalanga. Many of the plants have been running for decades and there is a push to retire them and switch to alternatives such as solar energy as South Africa emits the same amount of climate-warning greenhouse gases as the U.K., which has an economy eight times the size.

Coal mines and power stations are more labor intensive than renewable energy plants and Mpumalanga will also face competition from other provinces for the siting of solar power plants as the Northern Cape, which has a more arid climate, has clearer skies.

“Moving to a low-carbon economy will change the structure of the economy and impact on the working class,” said Pulane Mafoea-Nkalai, a senior research specialist at the Sam Tambani Research Institute, which is affiliated to the National Union of Mineworkers. “NUM, as a union organizing in both the coal and energy sector, recognizes that their members and their communities will be affected.”

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Shift to renewable energy threatens 120,000 South African jobs