STS - conferences, IST2012

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From coal crunch to wind rush? Governing power in South Africa
Lucy Baker

Last modified: 2012-03-19


South Africa is historically dependent on cheap coal for approximately 90 per cent of its electricity generation and 50 per cent of its carbon emissions. This paper forms an empirical analysis of how the country’s development trajectory has to date been determined by its so-called ‘minerals-energy complex’ (Fine and Rustomjee 1996) founded on cheap coal-fired electricity and cheap labour for export. This regime is now under threat from rising coal costs, national electricity supply shortages and climate change mitigation requirements.

In the wake of Durban’s COP 17 the country is taking steps to introduce renewables into its electricity mix whilst expanding its conventional coal-fired generation. This paper examines the emergent though as yet non-existent wind energy industry being developed largely by independent power producers backed by private finance and the Medupi coal-fired power plant being developed by state utility Eskom. These two case studies are examined within the context of significant, yet at times conflicting policy developments taking place simultaneously at the national level. These include the renewable energy feed-in tariff, the integrated resource plan, the industrial policy action plan and the renewable energy white paper. In doing so the research illuminates key dynamics and tensions between economic, political, industrial, environmental and social priorities in South Africa’s energy policy.

The research fuses perspectives from the socio-technical transitions (Kemp et al 2007, Kern and Smith 2008, and Smith et al 2005) with a critical political economy approach, central for the analysis of power relations, structural change and the underlying interests of dominant actors (Söderbaum 2003, Büscher 2009) but which to date has provided limited focus on renewable energy. In doing this it addresses a gap that the transitions literature has identified from within its own ranks of a limited analysis of power and agency the political dimension of systems change (Meadowcroft 2011).