When someone thinks you are wrong on the internet, they waste no time telling you – nor smirking when they think they have proved you wrong.
I’ve experienced it many times over the years, but perhaps never as intensely as after a recent column about Minerals & energy minister Gwede Mantahse’s frankly irrational defence of “cleaner coal” as a power source for the future.
My Twitter timeline was clogged with response in defence of Mantashe – and I was followed by numerous fake accounts which I blocked and reported to Twitter. It’s noteworthy that the only time I see clearly fake accounts (it’s the string of meaningless numbers in that name that gives it away, sparky) was after that column and several in July about #Presidunce Jacob Zuma.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good debate, but really only a fact-based one. It’s hard to have a meaningful conversation with, say, a 60-something man who is an ardent anti-vaxxer whose central premise is a misinformed conspiracy theory about pregnant women who take the Covid vaccine. Not even “are you pregnant?” is a valid response, according to this man, nor is “this virus can kill you, and you might pass it on and kill someone else”.
I write critical things in this column about Apple, Facebook, Google and never get followed by bots. Yet, every time I write about an ANC politician, bots pop up in my timeline like pothole repairers the month before a local election.
I’m not an engineer, nor have I ever worked for an energy utility. (I briefly ran an SOE, the acronym for our TV programme Stuff on eNCA, named for what it was, but also the acronym. I can no longer therefore jokingly refer to myself as Toby Molefe). But I do understand the laws of physics.
So what do the Mantashe defenders and coal apologists use to defend the burning of fossil fuels?
That developed countries “moved too quickly” away from coal-fired power stations and Europe ran out of energy in recent months.
I feel like I have to talk slowly when I have to explain things like this to climate denialists, much like you have to reduce verbal speed with you speak to an ANC local councillor about potholes being caused by a lack of maintenance. Or, actually, anything.
Yes, coal-fired power stations are “instant on” sources of electricity. But they have a huge amount of negatives – not least of which is how indefensibly polluting they are. South Africa is the eighth largest polluter in the world, while Eskom is the biggest emitter of sulphur dioxide on the planet.
When climate envoys visited the country last month, Mantashe couldn’t avail himself to meet these people who care so deeply about the environment that they are willing to give South Africa cheap money to save the planet. Also, the people most adversely affected are South Africans, especially those in Mpumalanga to have been unfortunate to be born above so many coal reserves – making it one of the most polluted places to live on earth.
It tells you everything you need to know about the ANC-led government’s lack of interest that the lead ministry is Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, thankfully led by one of the only competent ministers, Barbara Creecy.
Those rich nations have already offered an indicative grant allocation of between $200m and $500m. This is not much in terms of the R400bn Eskom needs to break its crippling debt cycle, but not a bad start. Unless you are an ANC benefactor with coal-mining interests or the energy minister whose sense of priorities is warped towards party favours instead of the health of your own citizens.
So here is the solution – as I speak slowly for any government ministers who still read news publications – buy more batteries. It’s that simple. If you want to replace ageing, uninsurable pollution-spewing coal power stations with green, cheap, easy-to-finance renewable power sources (that also means wind people, not just solar) then upgrade your storage capacity. Like when you buy a battery booster or power bank for your smartphone.
There’s this guy from Pretoria called Elon Musk who is making giant batteries for Australia, for instance.
Not only are these new batteries a better way to spend your money, but they’re also insurable. Obviously, Mantashe hasn’t noticed this little nuance that so drastically affects his ministry’s area of expertise – you can no longer insure coal power stations. Speaking slowly: if you have a R2bn explosion at Medupi (like the one in August), there’s no way to get that money back. And it just cost another R2bn to replace it. You could’ve bought a lot of batteries for that.
This article first appeared in Financial Mail.