The Komati coal-fired power plant, located 88 miles east of Johannesburg in South Africa’s coal heartland, has been called the flagship of the country’s budding energy transition. At its peak, the facility, which came online in 1961, produced 2 per cent of the country’s power supply. It also supported thousands of people, from miners digging nearby seams to hawkers selling bananas by its front gates. Yet its owner, the state company Eskom, retired the plant in October 2022 after deeming the repairs needed to keep it running cost-prohibitive. Instead, it chose Komati for a different sort of makeover.
A $497 million project financed by the World Bank will, over the next five years, dismantle the plant and surround it with solar panels and wind turbines, a battery array, a green-jobs training centre, and a factory that will employ hundreds of workers building community microgrids. President Cyril Ramaphosa hopes Komati will not only lead his country’s emergence as a clean energy heavyweight but show how to do so equitably and with the guiding input of communities and labor. Eskom calls Komati one of the largest efforts in the world to decommission and repurpose a coal plant, and says it could become a “global reference on how to transition fossil fuel assets.”
But when Malekutu Motubatse visited a nearby village in September, he found a ghost town. Motubatse, who represents some 35,000 miners and others as regional chair of the National Union of Mineworkers, says the closure cost at least 1,000 contractors their livelihoods and crashed the local economy. “People are demoralized, people are hungry,” he said of the 4,000 or so residents. “You can’t just close down a power station without an alternative. People can’t eat promises.” A recent report on Komati, commissioned by Ramaphosa, backs him up, saying Eskom wrongly shuttered the facility before new work opportunities were in place. But with four more coal plants scheduled to close in the area by 2030, Motubatse fears more harm to workers and communities lies in store.
If Komati is the flagship of South Africa’s plan to transition to a clean energy economy, it’s also an early indicator that things are off to a choppy start. For the last two years, the country has led a group of developing nations that are working with the Global North to prove it’s possible to accelerate this process while buffering workers and communities from the shakeup. In 2021, South Africa became the first to formalize this mission in a policy plan, signing an $8.5 billion deal with a cluster of G7 nations called the Just Energy Transition Partnership, or JETP. The program’s guiding logic is that many emerging states want to grow on a sustainable path but need cash to do it fast enough to benefit the climate.
JETPs are designed to support them with a burst of focused investment. The basic structure is that a group of rich nations — including, for example, the United States — pledges money to a developing partner, which comes up with a compendium of projects that it thinks can hasten its energy evolution and deliver specific emissions reductions. Partners review the list and match funding to projects over a window of three to five years. Ideally, they should unlock billions of dollars more in private-sector investment. It’s not yet known how well this will work, but that hasn’t stopped Indonesia, Vietnam, and Senegal from signing similar deals over the last two years. More announcements could be coming at COP28; India, Nigeria, and Kazakhstan are some of those rumoured to be in the hunt. China’s signalled interest in financing similar programs. Last week, President Xi Jinping announced roughly $100 billion in climate financing to spur clean energy projects abroad, in an initiative that boosters say has some resemblances to the JETP.
No one expects these efforts to go smoothly. Even in rich countries energy infrastructure is notoriously slow to change, with transitions measured in decades rather than years. Experts have already observed frictions between the Global North and South — from squabbles over financing to differing visions of justice — and say this is slowing the flow of money and deployment of real-world projects.
In some cases, these frictions are evidence of tough, pragmatic negotiations; in others, they reveal deep divisions that could slow or even derail a country’s participation in the program. “This is your credibility,” Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister and its top JETP negotiator, snarled at G7 partners in a May interview with Bloomberg. “We don’t lose anything if the deal doesn’t materialize.”