Komati’s closure: Lessons for a Just Transition

Our coal-dominated power system is aged, unreliable, expensive and polluting. Plans to shift towards renewable, affordable, and job-creating clean energy systems are vital to creating energy security that households and businesses desperately need. Clean and efficient power is also integral to our long-term economic growth and international competitiveness.

However, the early days of this transition have faced challenges. Eskom’s decommissioning of the Komati coal-fired power plant represented an important step for the utility’s Just Energy Transition (JET) Strategy and the government’s 2019 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which would see clean energy generation gradually replace retiring coal. When Komati had come to the end of its operational life, just one unit remained active at the time of full retirement. But, a flawed approach to the closure has negatively impacted the local community, and important lessons must be learnt to ensure justice is at the centre of future retirements.

Eskom’s plans for Komati

After first being commissioned in 1961, Komati was one of Eskom’s oldest plants as it reached its end of its life in October 2022. The age of Eskom’s coal fleet makes large overhaul investments for extending the life of the old coal plants unfeasible. As well as being aged, the plant was also highly polluting. Analysis by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) found that since 2020, when most units at the plant were placed in reserve, 220 deaths and R4.9 billion in health costs had already been avoided in the surrounding area.

In November 2022, the World Bank Group approved a USD $497 million project to support repurposing the area with renewable energy generation. The intention is to utilise the site and transmission infrastructure and create opportunities for workers and communities. The Komati ‘Repowering and Repurposing’ project involves plans for 150 MW of solar power, 70 MW of wind power, and 150 MW of storage, also helping to improve power supply and grid stability more broadly.

The PCC’s verdict on Komati’s closure

Despite what Eskom calls its “comprehensive” JET Strategy, an interim report by the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) revealed that essential components of a JET framework were not adhered to when the last unit of Komati was closed. Namely, there were inadequate efforts to consult with workers in a timely manner. Discussions with workers at Komati began in May 2022, along with the commencement of the first project aimed at creating alternative jobs. The power plant was closed five months later in October.

“The process at Komati started too late,” the PCC said. “Communities and workers should be informed of the closure years ahead of time.”

Additionally, a delay in launching the clean energy projects required for economic diversification and rejuvenation has left many in the community out of work. As a result, local people and the regional economy have suffered due to the closure.

Mpumalanga Premier Refliwe Mtshweni-Tsipane thanked the PCC for bringing to light the justice issues at Komati, “which require us to deeply consider future decommissioning schedules and ensure that such does not leave a legacy of ghost towns and impoverished communities in the mining towns and coal energy hubs in our province”.

PCC recommendations for Komati: Prioritising clean investments and jobs

The PCC’s report identifies several key interventions to address justice concerns at Komati. For example, expanding the Komati project to generate new economic and livelihood opportunities, particularly to mitigate short-term closure impacts while the repurposing project is ongoing.

Additionally, the PCC recommends that Komati could be a pilot for community-owned renewable energy, aligning with the Just Energy Transition Investment Plan (JET-IP). A feasibility study could also explore large-scale manufacturing of mini-grids, meeting local and global demand and boosting economic competitiveness. Lastly, involving local universities or training institutions could enhance training options and build local capacity for specialised training.

In addition to job creation, improving existing infrastructure and services in the area would also enhance regional regeneration. The PCC emphasises that access to essential services, affordable healthcare, and quality education are necessary for just and equitable transitions.

The PCC concludes: “Despite the shortcomings in the closure of the Komati plant, there is enough agency and will in and around Komati to see real progress in the future, at an imaginable scale. With the recommendations described in this report, it is possible and feasible for Komati to emerge as a post-transition town of national significance, paving the way for future just transition projects.”

Lessons for future JET projects

The PCC also highlights crucial lessons to consider for future coal-fired power stations’ decommissioning and repurposing as they reach the end of their operational life. Employing these will ensure that future communities benefit from the “inevitable” clean energy transition and are not left behind. These include:

  • Local economic diversification before decommissioning, to ensure growth in local markets
  • Early planning for decommissioning, to promote a smooth transition with immediate job opportunities and training
  • Early and frequent engagement with affected groups
  • Transparency and participatory planning empower communities, to foster trust in a committed just transition
  • Local government should boost local economic development, and the province should lead in renewable energy projects
  • National government must provide enough funds and policy support.

PCC Deputy Chairperson, Mr Valli Moosa, said: “The recommendations present a blueprint for ensuring that justice is centrally located in future coal plant decommissioning, repowering, and repurposing projects, including getting the timing and sequencing right as well as properly engaging with communities.”

Investing in clean energy generation and new technologies can serve as the backbone of our future economic prosperity. But, for future Just Transition projects to be successful, they must also improve the lives of coal workers and communities. Important lessons from Komati must be learned.