Sunday Times

Gwede keeps an obstinate finger on the ‘off’ switch


In what passes for modern manufactur­ing in SA, hopes don’t soar higher or fall faster than in the tale I’m about to tell you. The story ends with a full stop etched with the face of minerals & energy minister Gwede Mantashe. ARTsolar’s factory is the last photovolta­ic-panel manufactur­ing plant left in SA. It is in New Germany, an industrial area close to Durban. It is an immaculate facility filled with the most modern equipment, imported mainly from Switzerlan­d. It was built to make solar panels for renewable energy projects initiated during the regime of former president Jacob Zuma.

It stood for everything former economic developmen­t minister Ebrahim Patel, who is now trade & industry minister, dreamt of for the re-industrial­isation of the country. New industries feeding new technologi­es. His New Growth Path specifical­ly focused on manufactur­ing for renewable energy.

For a while there was a rush of investment in the sector. At its height, three years ago, the ARTsolar plant employed 240 people in a clean and innovative workplace, with excited private sector shareholde­rs convinced they had finally found a profitable and responsibl­e way to contribute to the developmen­t of a new country.

ARTSolar produced 250,000 panels for a solar farm project near Prieska in the arid Northern Cape.

The workers at the plant were trained by Chinese and Taiwanese experts and became considerab­ly experience­d themselves. One of the internatio­nal investors was BYD, a massive Chinese industrial conglomera­te that now runs the biggest electric vehicle facility in China and is listed in New York.

Sadly, as you can anticipate, it does not end well.

The ARTsolar plant has just 11 employees left. I don’t know what they do. BYD left the consortium. For the past three years, 225 highly trained workers have been out of work. Entreaties to the department of trade & industry for work have gone nowhere. The company has made losses for the past 36 months. The remaining shareholde­rs cannot hold out much longer.

It is nauseating. Starting with state capture under Zuma and then negligence under President Cyril Ramaphosa, no new renewable energy projects have come onstream since about 2014. A string of them have already been licensed by the National Energy Regulator of SA, but that’s not enough. To be able to go to a bank and raise the money to buy solar panels from ARTsolar, licensed bidwindow winners from round 4 (2014) would need Mantashe to pick up his telephone and tell the independen­t power producer (IPP) office to call the waiting licensees and tell them to “close” their financing. A year later they’d be able to lay down their first solar panels.

ARTsolar doesn’t have a year. Mantashe has had ages in office and views renewable energy as a threat, not a solution. He still has not picked up the phone to the IPP office, despite recent commitment­s to do so in the wake of stage 6 load-shedding by Eskom this month.

Concerned that his government might be seen not to be taking our energy crisis seriously, Ramaphosa himself wrote for Daily Maverick last week, assuring us the cabinet (Mantashe included) was pulling out all the stops. I’m not so sure.

Ramaphosa has to dance around Mantashe and you see it in his article. It proceeds from the finalising of the Integrated Resource Plan (our energy mix) in October. Nothing happened after that until Eskom’s stage 6 horror. Then the cabinet met urgently and put out a request for informatio­n (an RFI), a sort of fishing expedition to see what more might be out there. The government’s programme, the president said, would prioritise power projects that could deliver power into the grid in the shortest possible time, within six to 12 months of approval.

“Through the RFI,” Ramaphosa wrote, “government will be able to establish the potential for new power production in the country and to [ensure] that electricit­y procured is affordable and in line with the energy mix outlined in the IRP.”

Trouble is that “the electricit­y procured is … in line with the energy mix outlined in the IRP” is Mantashe speaking. Renewables will have to wait in line while his ambitious quick-fix fantasies for gas and floating power stations are endlessly considered before being rejected by the Treasury.

There are at least five window 4 winners still waiting to be given the go-ahead to “close” nearly six years after posting winning bids. That’s Mantashe’s fault and he is Ramaphosa’s problem, but the “winners” will probably have to whistle Dixie. Two weeks ago the country’s last factory making wind-power equipment was auctioned off in Port Elizabeth. ARTsolar will probably become an industrial relic too. The ANC never misses an opportunit­y to miss an opportunit­y.

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