The Will to Power

The World Bank yesterday approved a $3.75 billion loan for a new coal-fired power plant in Limpopo, South Africa.  Named Medupi, the 4,800 megawatt plant will draw on South Africa’s abundant sources of coal to provide power for an increasingly power-hungry nation.  It will be one of the biggest coal-fired power plants in the world.

But who precisely will control and who will benefit from this power?  What is the World Bank doing funding the fossil fuel industry to the hilt when we clearly have to make an immediate transition to sustainable energy sources?

These questions are particularly germane since the South African national power company, Eskom, took out substantial international loans during the early years of apartheid from 1951-1967 to build power plants that provided some of the world’s cheapest electricity exclusively to large corporations and whites, while saddling the country’s entire population with the significant debts associated with these loans.  South Africa is still grappling with the debt of the apartheid era.

Admittedly, as a recent piece by Andrew Revkin on the “energy gap” and the climate crisis points out, access to energy is an increasingly important issue globally .  As Revkin argues, the world’s growing population is already marked by yawning inequalities of access to energy supplies that might provide reliable sources of light at night and heat for cooking.  Yet little research is being done to develop clean, sustainable sources of power.  In fact, almost precisely the opposite is the case: according to a recent report by the Environmental Law Institute, the U.S. spent approximately $72 billion on subsidies for fossil fuels while supporting renewables with only $29 billion during the period from 2002-2008.

The World Bank decision on the loan to South Africa continues such unsustainable trends.  Medupi will emit 25 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.  Although the South African energy minister Dipho Peters argues that, with 25% of the country still lacking access to power, Medupi will fill a much needed demand.  Yet such populist rhetoric obscures the fact that the majority of the plant’s power will benefit large, transnational corporations, many of whom had secret, apartheid-era agreements with the racist regime that completely shield them from costs associated with construction of the plant and repayment of the World Bank loan.

If local people are unlikely to benefit much from the power generated by Medupi, they will inevitably suffer from its dangerous side-effects.  As with all coal-fired power plants, local air quality will decline, sulphur dioxide levels will skyrocket, and mercury residue in the area’s water, air and land will increase.  According to Earthlife Africa, the plant would also be responsible for diminished access to water and land degradation in what was formerly a predominantly agrarian area.  Anticipating these damaging effects, residents of Limpopo filed a complaint with the World Bank inspection team earlier this week, apparently to no avail.

Another justification for the project was articulated by World Bank vice-president for Africa Obiageli K Ezekwesili, who said recently that the project is vital for providing access to energy and fighting poverty.  But, as Sunita Dubey from the activist group Groundwork argues, South Africa’s energy crisis is a product of sweetheart deals between Eskom and large corporations, which provide these large firms with some of the cheapest electricity in the world.

The approval of the World Bank loan, a vote from which the U.S., Great Britain, and the Netherlands all abstained from, is a huge defeat for South African and international climate justice movements.  It is also a great setback for efforts to promote a shift away from unsustainable energy sources.  Although it’s important to acknowledge that the will to power is likely to figure increasingly prominently in a world in which billions of people lack the most basic amenities of modernity, we cannot simply focus on producing more power.  The Medupi defeat should underline the urgency of building a stronger global movement for climate justice, one that targets the unsustainable energy policies of institutions like the World Bank in the same way that the global justice movement targeted their unjust structural adjustment policies.  Sustained critique of the World Bank’s history of flawed energy sector lending policies – as well as local activism to challenge the adverse impacts of such policies – should be high on the climate justice movement’s list of priorities.


Filed under environment, imperialism

4 responses to “The Will to Power

  1. Provocative and stimulating thoughts/facts … well presented.
    Will we see this expanded into a longer in-depth article?

    • Thanks. Perhaps I’ll expand it. Would be worthwhile to look in more detail at the role of international institutions like the World Bank in the new green global economy that’s currently in consolidation.

  2. Nigel

    South Africa has the dilemma, and is certainly not alone, in having a growing urban population and rising standard of living which cause an increase in the demand for electricity. The Eskom expansion is within the framework of an overall government commitment to reduce the carbon commitment in the longer term. See following extracts from the World Bank project report ( particularly paragraphs 13&14):

    6. Availability of surplus power supply has been essential to propelling South Africa’s energy intensive economy. Electricity consumption increased by about 60 percent between 1994-2006 as a result of a 50 percent increase in real GDP, South Africa’s mass electrification expansion program, rapid urbanization and industrial growth. Residential consumption of electricity, 20 percent of total consumption, grew by 50 percent, as access to electricity multiplied and rising income levels and urbanization saw greater use of electricity in people’s lives. The pressure of expanding demand on the
    power sector has been especially severe for South Africa because of the energy-intensive nature of its economy.
    7. The strong growth in electricity demand was not matched on the supply side. No new
    greenfield generation capacity in either private or public sector has come on-stream between 2001-2006.
    Peak demand caught up rapidly with the country’s generation capacity, and in late 2007, Eskom’s reserve margins fell to dangerously low levels leading to an electricity crisis with attendant large economic losses.
    8. Electricity shortfalls in South Africa also hinder the economic development of the region,
    which depends on South Africa for its electricity supply. Several of South Africa’s neighbors, such as Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe have long depended on Eskom-generated electricity supply.
    9. The electricity crisis of 2007/08 reinforced the need for urgent implementation of Eskom’s
    Investment Program. The Government of South Africa has responded with a two-pronged approach by:
    (i) assigning the highest priority in the near-term to improving generation capacity, and (ii) adopting strategies to accelerate energy efficiency, investing in clean energy, and pursuing regulatory and economic instruments to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions over the medium-term, and eventually reduce
    emissions over the long-term, as envisaged in the government’s Long Term Mitigation Scenarios (LTMS). The LTMS recommends five priority climate change mitigation options in South Africa:
    industrial energy efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear power, modal shift in passenger transport, and improved vehicle efficiency.

    10. The GoSA’s near-term policy response focuses on four areas:
    (i) increasing supply capacityby bringing on new short-term, high-cost capacity,re-commissioning old plants that have been taken out of service and financing an aggressive new build program for Eskom with significant addition to
    generation capacity;
    (ii) improving Eskom’s operating practices to increase supply-side reliability;
    (iii) accelerating an energy efficiency program which targets low-cost high-impact interventions including solar water heaters, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and demand-side management options;
    and (iv) designing a legal and regulatory framework to attract private sector investment in generation with a focus on renewable energy.
    11. GoSA’s policy response reflects the fact that there are no immediate domestic alternatives
    to coal for supplying large amounts of electricity in South Africa. Coal will continue to be a major,
    low-cost source for power-generation during the next 10-15 years. Coal is abundantly available in South Africa for large-scale power generation, especially considering the scale of the country’s unmet energy needs estimated to be 12,000 MW over the next 5-7 years. South Africa is the world’s fifth largest producer of coal; extraction costs of this high quality and low sulfur coal are low. The country has insignificant deposits of oil or natural gas. The greatest potential for large renewable projects is limited to concentrated solar power (CSP) and wind energy. However, CSP technology is still in early stages of
    development and cannot be relied on for the country’s large base load needs. Although wind energy is a commercially mature and proven renewable energy technology, it is not well-suited to meet the large base load requirements such as those faced by South Africa. New hydropower potential is largely nonexistent.
    12. There are also no feasible near-term regional renewable alternatives in the sub-region to
    meet the demand in South Africa. There is a severe shortage of generation capacity in the sub-region.
    Nine of the 12 countries in the Southern Africa Power Pool (SAPP) have been experiencing energy shortages, caused primarily by the shortfall in South Africa’s generation capacity. Large renewable generation capacity does exist within the SAPP but cannot be mobilized in the near-term and certainly not soon enough to mitigate the impending power crisis in South Africa. Moreover, the current generation
    requirement is larger than the combined undeveloped hydro generation potential of Zambia and Mozambique, countries with the most feasible sources of regional supply in the near-term, and much larger than all generation projects deemed feasible within SAPP over the medium term.
    13. GoSA has determined that national sustainable development goals and global climate
    change necessitate South Africa’s transition to a low-carbon economy. The Cabinet endorsed the
    LTMS, which envisages a shift away from coal toward nuclear and renewable energy, with a view to ensuring that the carbon emissions from all sources, including electricity generation, peak during 2020-2025, plateau for a decade, and then begin declining thereafter.
    14. Demand Side Management (DSM) will in addition play a key role in minimizing the
    inefficient use of energy, which, over the years, has made the South African economy one of the world’s most energy-intensive. In order to moderate the demand growth, Eskom together with the GoSA and the National Energy Regulator of South Africa have embarked on a DSM program aimed to save 3,000 MW
    of generation capacity by 2013, equivalent to the size of a large generation plant. The program aims to further save an additional 5,000 MW of generation capacity by 2025. Mitigation strategies through a combination of penalties and incentives to promote greater energy efficiency have appropriately become
    an integral part of the GoSA’s plans. And recognizing that it cannot rely on public sector alone for DSM activities, GoSA has sought to strengthen the sector’s policy framework to attract private investment

    • You write that “The Eskom expansion is within the framework of an overall government commitment to reduce the carbon commitment in the longer term.” But, as a wag once quipped, in the longer term we’ll all be dead. Of course, this longer term now has to be thought of in terms of inter-generational genocide. The World Bank’s pronouncements are predicated on business as usual. But all one needs to do to see through such rhetoric is read the work of climate scientists such as James Hansen to see that business as usual is (or should be) over.

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