S.Africa energy minister vows to keep burning coal for power

JOHANNESBURG, Dec 17 (Reuters) - South Africa’s energy minister vowed on Tuesday to keep burning coal to generate electricity, even as the continent’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter adopts more renewable energy sources to meet its commitments on tackling climate change.

Africa’s most industrialised economy is also grappling with a power crisis that has hurt growth, temporarily shut down mining operations and threatened its remaining investment grade rating.

“As much as we intend to utilise the sun and wind resources we have, we intend to continue to use our fossil fuel resources, and to increase investment in ... clean coal technologies,” Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe told delegates at a local launch of the IEA Coal 2019 report.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) report, which predicted that global coal demand would remain stable until 2024, as growth in Asia offsets weaker Western demand, was published on Tuesday.

The government had already shrunk its dependence on coal for power generation to 75%, from 90% a few years ago, he said, adding that the government had “given renewables the biggest growth allocation”, in future projects.

“South Africa is a major producer of coal,” Mantashe added. “Entire towns and settlements exist around coal mining areas, and as such, our focus must be on how to mitigate the impact of coal sector downscaling.”

The government’s long term power plan, released in October, provides for 1,500 megawatts (MW) of new coal power, 2,500 MW of hydropower, 6,000 MW from photovoltaic, 14,400 MW from wind and 3,000 MW from natural gas.

The plan aims to relieve the country’s frequent, crippling power shortages which worsened last week when heavy rains caused outages at its Medupi coal fire power plant and at open pit coal mines.

Such plants make South Africa one of the world’s top 20 emitters of carbon dioxide, a cause of controversy at home.

“Coal no longer makes sense,” the Mail & Guardian weekly wrote in its latest edition, ahead of the IEA launch. “It pollutes rivers and fills our lungs with poison ... It drives the climate crisis, which is already destroying communities.”

Mantanshe told delegates in Johannesburg he would not be swayed by anti-coal activists.

“I listen to them, but their story is not the only story in town,” he said. “We are not consumed by denialism when it comes to climate change ... (but) We must ensure a balanced approach.” (Reporting by Naledi Mashishi and Kara ven der Berg, Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)