Vigilant South Africans resist energy projects that harm the seas

On World Oceans Day, the Karpowership debacle is a reminder of our responsibility to protect and restore marine life.

South Africans are incredulous at being offered a sea-based ‘emergency’ solution to its endemic electricity crisis. Emergency, after all, implies a stop-gap measure for a transition to a preferred long-term form of power generation.

On 18 March Turkey’s Karpowership and its South African subsidiary Karpowership SA were announced as one of the preferred bids under South Africa’s Risk Mitigation Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (RMIPPPP). The plan was launched in 2019 to procure almost 2 000MW of new-generation capacity.

Karpowership SA proposes mooring three of its floating power stations in Saldanha Bay, Richards Bay and the Port of Ngqura, which would add about 1 220MW of electricity to the grid by using liquefied natural gas (LNG)-fired turbines.

Concerns have been raised about the ecological impact of the heated water discharged into the harbours. The project also doesn’t sufficiently limit South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions. As Tony Carnie wrote in Daily Maverick, Karpowership doesn’t seem to have provided scientific monitoring reports on the environmental impact of the ships in other countries where it operates.

Concerns have been raised about the ecological impact of the heated water discharged into the harbours

This shows the incongruence of an emergency energy and climate change-relevant solution initially touted as a long-term fix for the country’s energy deficiencies. A better approach would have been to invest in domestically developed renewable options based on evidence-based policy decisions.

In 2020, Daily Maverick revealed that Karpowership had secured an ‘emergency exemption’ from the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries under the National Environmental Management Act. This bypassed the requirement for an environmental impact assessment on the basis that the emergency power would supply hospitals and essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Public anger at the exploitation of COVID-19 was compounded by the apparent disregard for Karpowership’s environmental impact. The department swiftly revoked the permit as fear grew that a devastating precedent was being created that would exempt all manner of projects from a public and proper assessment.

Now South Africa seems poised to have three Karpowership ‘floating kettles’, as they’re popularly known, operating from 2022 to 2042. The company has since submitted environmental impact assessments for the three ports, although they have been challenged and are subject to a formal complaint that could see them withdrawn.

However Karpowership may be here to stay. The South African case reveals the likely political and economic trajectory of the African energy transition and why this issue will matter for decades to come.

Karpowership will likely become a feature of LNG-fuelled electricity generation across Africa

First, and regardless of South Africa’s eventual RMIPPPP decisions, Karpowership vessels are already a major fixture of the African energy environmentSouth Africa would be the 10th African country to contract with the company. Karpowership has been supplying substantial portions of African countries’ electricity needs, starting with Ghana, since 2014. It has generated 100% of Guinea-Bissau’s electricity since 2019.

The company will likely become a feature of continent-wide LNG-fuelled electricity generation if, as it seems, Turkey is determined to increase its presence throughout Africa. In this case, Turkey accrues significant ‘soft power’ through the generation of emergency electrical power.

Second, Karpowership isn’t an outlier in a general shift towards gas-fuelled power generation. It offers liquid gas to power-generation options similar to many of the broader incremental LNG-fuelled or ‘low carbon’ transitions being steered by energy majors. These include TotalEnergies and Shell, which aim to procure and supply vast amounts of energy in the form of liquefied natural gas to countries in Asia and Southern Africa, as well as for fuel for shipping.

South Africa’s diversification away from its dependence on coal-derived electricity now seems headed towards a reliance on gas for a larger part of its energy mix. In the absence of its own significant gas reserves, it will need to import LNG from neighbours such as Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and Tanzania. These countries have huge reserves and are making LNG export a significant part of their political economies.

Third, South Africa will be an important export market, albeit small relative to countries such as India and China, and provides financial anchorages for these ventures. This is financed locally by institutions such as Standard Bank, Absa, Investec, the Development Bank of Southern Africa and internationally via the World Bank.

South Africa needs continued public scrutiny over ocean and environmental decisions

All this depends on South Africa passing the Gas Amendment Bill and developing a gas master plan for the country. The regional cooperation this requires, such as benefiting from the Matola gas-to-power plant in Mozambique, will consolidate South Africa’s role in implementing the Southern African Development Community’s Regional Gas Master Plan.

Finally, South Africa’s Karpowership story shows the need for greater public participation in all future procurement processes – and a growing public willingness to do so. Media reports and movies such as the Oscar Award-winning South African documentary My Octopus Teacher undoubtedly play a part. By showing how human activities continually degrade the country’s coasts and oceans, the film inspires action to protect and restore marine life.

Such action must involve increased public scrutiny over ocean and environmental decisions. It’s a welcome sign that Sahlulele Luzipo, Chairperson of the South African Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources and Energy, is adamant that Parliament provides more effective oversight.

World Oceans Day on 8 June aims to raise our awareness and sense of responsibility to stop the ongoing degradation of the seas. Perhaps this year’s takeaway is a positive one: a vigilant South African civil society and media won’t tolerate being marginalised and bullied into policies that harm the oceans.

Timothy Walker, Maritime Project Leader and Senior Researcher, ISS Pretoria

This article is funded by the Government of Norway.

In South Africa, Daily Maverick has exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles. For media based outside South Africa and queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

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