Learning about RENEWABLE ENERGY from the METALWORKERS of SOUTH AFRICA

I will be giving a report on March 17th (St. Patrick’s Day) about the conference I attended in Johannesburg sponsored by the metalworkers union of South Africa, representing auto, steel, mine and energy sector workers.  Two of the remarks by the union’s leadership at that conference already appear in previous blog posts.  If you live in the Detroit area, I hope you can come out and hear about a different kind of “green.”

Renewable Energy: Stop Another Capitalist Grab! – Cedric Gina, NUMSA President

Opening Address

International Conference

Building a Renewable Energy Sector in South Africa

04-08 February 2012

Johannesburg, South Africa

_________________________________________________________

  • The 2nd Deputy-President of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (NUMSA) – Cde. Christine Olivier,
  • NUMSA’s National Officers Bearers (NOBs) present here today,
  • Regional leaders of our mighty union,
  • Representatives from the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU) and its affiliates,
  • Representatives from our ally and leader of the Tripartite Alliance – the African National Congress (ANC),
  • Delegates representing various environmental organisations, climate justice networks and “civil/uncivil” society,
  • Officials from government departments and public utilities,
  • Our local and international guests,
  • Conference delegates,
  • Comrades and friends;

Cedric Gina, President, NUMSA

On behalf of NUMSA’s leadership and 287 422 members of our union, let me greet and welcome you to this important conference of metalworkers of South Africa.  Without being boastful, for NUMSA, the gathering that starts today is a first trade union conference that brings together unionists, environmentalists, climate justice activists, political activists, government officials and other policymakers to talk about renewable energy.  For us, pulling together such diverse constituencies – without even considering outcomes – is an achievement on its own. I’m sure, that we will all admit that discussions on renewable energy have been divisive; pitting environmentalists against unions that organise in fossil fuel industries.

For our guests, let me saying something about NUMSA; which will underlie why the mere coming together of constituencies gathered here is an achievement on its own. NUMSA is the largest metalworkers union in South Africa and Africa. We organise workers in energy intensive industries. This includes steel, chrome, aluminium and other smelters. We also have members in power stations, which are mainly coal-powered, as well as in car factories and other metal and engineering-related sectors. In other words, we organise in some of the “dirtiest” industries on the planet, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and their impacts on climate change.

Now, why does a union that organises in “dirty” industries convene a conference on renewable energy?

Origins and motivation for this conference:

The idea of this renewable energy conference comes from NUMSA’s national mini-congress held in May 2009.  The mini-congress in 2009 resolved;

 “NUMSA must also commit resources for a national trade union conference on energy matters so that the union can adopt an informed decision on international carbon-trading, global warming, nuclear energy and the use of alternate energy resources such as solar, wind and wave-powered energy.” 

At the same mini-congress, the union took a number of other energy-related resolutions. This is what we said;

1.   Government should invest in power generation capacity of Eskom and other environmentally friendly sources of energy. The increase in capital expenditure required by Eskom must not be funded through higher tariffs by consumers.

2.   Privatization of Eskom should be rejected.

3.   NUMSA together with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) should oppose building of nuclear power stations and the investment thereof should be re-directed to environmentally friendly sources of energy.

4.   With the increase of electricity tariffs, we demand that the 50 kilowatt hours (KWh) of free electricity be increased by 100% to 100 kilowatt hours (KWh).

5.   Pensioners, unemployed and the poorest of the poor should be further subsidised on their electricity consumption.

6.   Government to lead a drive to convert to solar heating for hot water in all existing domestic and industrial users via generous tax rebates.

It is these above resolutions together with other key decisions of NUMSA’s national executive committee (NEC) and central committee (CC) that have guided the preparatory work towards this conference.

Let us say upfront that while the United Nations (UN) Conference of Parties (COP17) held in Durban in December 2011 highlighted the need to speedily search for a people’s centred and people’s driven solutions to climate change, the origins of this conference lie somewhere before the Durban conference. We are implementing a decision made by our members in May 2009; when they called “for a national trade union conference on energy matters so that the union can adopt an informed decision … on the use of alternate energy resources.”  We are not jumping on a climate change bandwagon, as many are doing!

 To just remind ourselves and let our international guests know: 2008 and 2009 were crunch years in South Africa in terms of supply of electricity. In 2008, we saw massive blackouts as the electricity utility – Eskom – could not meet the demand in electricity. A programme of planned cut-offs called “load-shedding” was implemented leading not only to cut-offs of households but many of our factories had to adopt phased shutdowns to adapt to Eskom’s load-shedding programme. The electricity crisis of 2008 had the following consequences:

  • an escalation of the electricity infrastructure build programme aimed at refurbishment of existing installations and new investments in generation, transmission and distribution. The electricity build programme budget now stands at R150-billion.
  • a massive increase in prices of electricity aimed at partially paying for the electricity build programme. Since April 2008, electricity consumers have felt the effects of price increases, which when compounded constitute an average 260% increase.

With electricity being an important component of the means of production in our sectors, the escalation in tariffs is obviously a union issue. Everyday our union organisers receive notices for retrenchments. Written on these retrenchment notices is: INCREASING ELECTRICITY PRICES.

But workers do not live in the factory. With electricity a key part of the means of subsistence, the increase in price of electricity also had a direct impact on the livelihood of our members, their families and communities. As NUMSA, we define ourselves as a revolutionary trade union which means that issues that affect our members outside the factory gates and in the communities; are union issues. Escalating electricity prices are not only a factory and shopfloor issue but are a societal problem.

So when the mini-congress in May 2009 said convene a conference “so that the union can adopt an informed decision …on the use of alternate energy resources”; they were looking at how renewable energy sources could be a solution to what was definitely a crisis.

As the problems of increasing price of electricity that were identified in 2008/2009 have not abated, the National Office Bearers (NOBs) hope that this conference will rise to the occasion and address the question of how renewables can be alternatives to conventional energy sources. 

Wall, Bree St., Johannesburg, South Africa

Other reasons for organising the conference:

 In addition to implementing the resolution of the May 2009 mini-congress, there are clearly other reasons why the convening of this conference is important and opportune:

Firstly, despite the fact that NUMSA represents workers in some of the “dirtiest” energy industries, we nonetheless have a strong commitment to work on strategies aimed at both mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

  • In July 2011, we held a 3-day national school on climate change. 
  • We also contributed to our trade union federation – COSATU’s – framework on climate change that was adopted in August 2011 
  • We also made submissions on the Green Paper on Climate Change which led to our government’s policy on climate change 
  • Last year, we established two worker-based Research and Development Groups (RDGs); one on energy efficiency and the other on renewable energy. Using participatory and action research methodology, we have plans to use these groups to develop union policies on energy-related questions. 
  • During COP17, NUMSA held an international seminar on Class Struggle & Climate Change where we discussed how we should reclaim the issue of climate change from elites and make it a matter for mass struggle. I am glad to see that some of the faces that were at the international seminar in Durban are again here with us. Thank you comrades! 

Secondly, South Africa is embarking on developing its renewable energy sector. As recent as December 2011, the South African government announced a number of independent power producers (IPPs) that were successful in Window 1 of the bidding process to bring renewables onto the grid. According to the Department of Energy (DoE), the “IPP Procurement Programme has been designed so as to contribute towards the target of 3 725 megawatts and towards socio-economic and environmentally sustainable growth, and to start and stimulate the renewable industry in South Africa”. According to a cabinet-adopted Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2010 – a twenty year electricity plan for the country – about 9% of all electricity generated in the country by 2030 will be from renewable energy sources. The session that follows my address will sketch how we have arrived at the point at which we are; in terms of renewable energy policy formulation.

The third additional reason why the conference is important to us is that as a union, we also organise in factories where renewable energy infrastructure is produced. In this room we have comrades who produce small wind turbines, solar water heaters and solar panels. As a revolutionary union, we have a vested interest in the character of the renewable sector that is built in South Africa. The building of a renewable energy sector raises questions about;

  • who benefits from the emergence of a renewable energy sector? Do communities stand to benefit or is this another capitalist grab to enrich a few? 
  • for whom is the renewable energy being produced? Is it for big corporations who get the electricity at a discount or is it to give access to those who presently do not have access? 
  • what is the primary goal of developing renewable energy sector? Is it to supply electricity to the grid or is it to bring electricity to those off the grid? 
  • where will South Africa and other developing countries fit in the emerging division of labour within the global renewable sector? Will developing countries and the South continue to be recipients of products developed in the North or can we turn things around and level the global playing field? 
  • how do fossil-fuel dependent countries make the transition to low-carbon economies without hurting their economies? 
  • should renewable energy be a commodity for profitable sale in the world-market or should it serve as a non-commercial means of subsistence? 
  • will workers devote their skills to expanding the renewable energy sector on the terms of the world market and global patent regimes or will they instead dedicate their services to ensure that the renewable energy sector remains in the common domain? 

Renewable Energy Is Not Inherently Progressive

For NUMSA, these are vital questions. As labour, we need to be clear that there is nothing inherently progressive about renewable energy. The renewable energy sector can be as exploitative as the “dirty” energy sectors. “Green jobs” can be indecent as blue or brown jobs. The renewable energy sector can use cheap labour, exploit women and children, use labour brokers and be dangerous in terms of occupational health and safety. Without being defensive, we need an analysis of the renewable energy sector so as to steer it in our favour.

Slave ship powered by renewable energy, painting by William Jackson

Like other energy forms, renewable energy has contradictory functions. On the one hand, it is a highly profitable commodity for production and exchange in the world-market and an essential raw material in the production and circulation of other such commodities. Furthermore, it is also an important substitute for human labour, and an enhancer of labour productivity.  On the other hand, it is also fundamental to human life and subsistence. Energy generation and distribution plays a key role in shaping human relations, playing a fundamental role in any division of labour, capitalist or otherwise. While the process of building a new energy system based around a greatly expanded use of renewable energies has the potential to make an important contribution to a process of constructing new egalitarian relations of production and exchange; the new energy system can be exploitative as the one that we have now.

Every form of energy implies a particular organisation of work and division of labour. Similar to fossil fuel industries, the renewable energy sector can be a site of inequality, hierarchy and struggle. Though still at an early stage, labour conflicts are emerging in the sector. Sometimes we wonder whether in fact it may be more accurate to speak about “green unemployment” than about “green jobs”. Territorial conflicts are also becoming increasingly important, in areas rich in renewable energy resources, such as wind, sun, water and biomass. Communities living in these territories, for the most part peasant and indigenous communities, are starting to face invasions and enclosure of their lands, as multi-national companies are given preferential treatment to access both the land and the finance and regulatory framework necessary to benefit from the energy resources.

There are also ongoing struggles throughout the world over the privatisation of commonly owned forests, which are a source of much of the world’s biomass fuels. Frequently these struggles have involved harsh state repression and, also foreign military occupation. Many people have already lost their lives in these conflicts. As this conference is taking place, major struggles have erupted in Nigera around the price of fuel. In future, these struggles may be about renewables and not petrol!

Social ownership and control at the center 

At this conference we will hear about conflicts that are happening around renewables in countries like Mexico. Conflicts such as these are the unavoidable consequences of satisfying the energy requirements of urban based industrialisation and a political and economic system which prioritises profit. Without a significant change in the way the sector is expanding, this process is only likely to worsen.

It is for all these reasons that the August 2011 Central Committee (CC) of NUMSA decided that in the discussion on building a renewable energy sector in South Africa, we should put the question of social ownership and control at the centre.  The Central Committee called for the building of a socially-owned renewable energy sector. Unless there is collective ownership and control of the new renewable energy sector, what is being built will be substantively not different from the exploitative system that exists. We have not forgotten that capitalist relations took shape in an era of renewable energies, in which wind powered sailing ships were the vehicle of choice for colonialists, and in which sugar was milled by wind mills on slave plantations.

Since August 2011, we have been working on what we mean by socially-owned renewable energy sector. On Day 3 of this conference, our Deputy General-Secretary (DGS) will give our initial thoughts on the subject. To help the discussions in the next two days, let me say that when talk about socially-owned renewable energy sector we are referring to a mix of different forms of collective ownership – energy parastatals, municipal-owned solar parks; wind cooperatives and other community-owned and controlled renewable energy companies. As NUMSA, we do not believe that a socially and ecologically desirable transition to a new energy system in which renewable energy plays the dominant role is actually possible within the constraints imposed by capitalist relations. Equally, we do not believe that existing parastatals like Eskom can be building blocks of a socially-owned renewable energy sector without being re-socialised. For more of this, wait for the NUMSA presentation on what we mean by a socially-owned renewable energy sector.

But it is not only government that is moving on the question of increasing the amount of renewables in our energy system. Private companies – local and foreign – have been positioning themselves for such an introduction and move. Capital as is always the case, views the introduction of renewables as a new site of accumulation. Unfortunately, government and other policymakers see the new renewable energy sector as being privately owned. Thus far it appears that the state is content to outsource the country’s renewable energy sector to the private sector. As NUMSA, we have also raised concerns about the low local content requirements and the fact that the incremental approach being adopted in the introduction of renewables could only lead large-scale importation. So the plan on the table on not only putting renewables in private hands, they are giving to multinational corporations on a silver platter! Today we will hear what the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) plans to do about this.

What we hope to achieve through this conference?

 This conference is being organised to learn and deepen our understanding of what a socially-owned renewable energy sector might look like. We also hope to develop a framework and concrete proposals for building such a sector in South Africa.

NUMSA is interested to learn from international efforts to build different forms of socially-owned renewable energy sectors in other countries, as well as to learn about the dangers that people face due to the expansion of the sector along non-socially-owned lines, namely capitalist renewable energy development. We have invited international participants to bring their experiences to shape this South African intervention. This afternoon and tomorrow morning, we will hear case studies from countries as varied as Mali, Tunisia, Denmark, Spain, China and Mexico.

We also hope that we will collectively reflect on the benefits of different forms of socially-owned renewable energy, and the obstacles in achieving this kind of development of the sector, which is rapidly expanding along capitalist lines.  This reflection includes sharing information and experiences about:

    • democratic and participatory ownership models that already exist in the renewable energy sector.
  • the threats and encroachments that these models of collective ownership are currently facing from investors, privatisation, territorial enclosures, inappropriate political regulations, or inability to compete in markets
    • the emerging conflicts within the sector such as conflicts relating to ownership and control of renewable energy infrastructure and technologies; ownership and control of territories that have abundance of renewable energy resources
  •  the division that is emerging within the renewable energy sector between those who defend an expansion of the sector along the lines of public, common or community ownership and control and those who see the sector as nothing more than a tool for capital accumulation

We have organised this conference so that it can:

  • lay the basis within NUMSA for a long term process of developing the skills and knowledge base amongst a wide range of workers in our sectors so that they are able to take a leading role in developing the renewable energy sector under social ownership and control 
  • lay the basis for NUMSA to develop a strong energy policy aimed at shaping South Africa’s industrial development in this field. Having such an energy policy will allow NUMSA to engage with relevant policy frameworks, such as the review of Integrated Resources Plan (IRP 2010), South Africa’s electricity policy framework from now till 2030, and the Integrated Energy Plan (IEP).

Wall, Johannesburg, SA (iPhone photo by FHAMMER)

As we are gathered here, the ruling party and the leader of our Alliance  – the ANC – is having its national executive committee to look at policies that it will take to its National Policy Conference in June 2012. Among the policies that are being discussed are energy policies. The policies that come out of the ANC processes will guide the country for the next five years. I hope that what we discuss, can find their way onto the ANC process. Our federation COSATU has organised a workshop to coordinate our unions’ intervention in the ANC policy process. As NUMSA, we must take what we discuss over the next five days into COSATU.

Cedric Gina, NUMSA President

Although what we plan to do in the next five days is to shape and fashion a South African intervention, we hope and expect that our international guests will learn from this initiative about possible national level interventions that they can make in their own countries. In other words, we believe that if we can get it right here, we can inspire initiatives in other countries.  It is our belief that the best internationalism plays itself on a national level. Already, in a workshop held last weekend the RDGs have been asked to research what an internationalist energy policy means. The RDGs must look at how what we do as a South African union must be informed by Southern African and African perspectives. We also need the RDGs to look at how we could as South Africa look at progressive energy models and policies in other parts of the globe. While the theme of this conference is: Building a Socially-Owned Renewable Energy Sector in South Africa we are not oblivious to our internationalist responsibilities and perspectives.

Conclusion: Time is Running Out

Changes in the world’s energy system are already underway, and are likely to accelerate in the coming period. A combination of ecological, political, economic and financial factors mean that energy production and consumption is becoming central to global political, economic, and financial dynamics. This is true of energy in general and renewable energy in particular. In the face of a rapidly deepening world economic crisis, and an increasingly acknowledged climate crisis, it is almost certain that the renewable energy sector will experience a massive and rapid global growth. This is a topic for the session that takes place after lunch today.

In addition to increasing the share of renewable energy in meeting the world’s need for sustainable power, heat, cooling and transportation energy solutions, such an accelerated industrial development would also create thousands of new industries and millions of jobs. The growth of the sector will also create demand for steel, fibreglass and the many other components of renewable energy manufacturing process.

We are currently facing a situation in which the expansion of the renewable energy sector is rapidly developing along capitalist lines. Efforts in “green capitalism” are rapidly becoming key to paving the way for a new cycle of global accumulation, in an attempt to resolve the current economic-financial crisis.

The way in which the world’s energy system evolves in the years ahead will be intimately intertwined with different possible ways out of the world economic-financial, and increasingly political, crisis. Changes in the world’s energy system cannot be understood without a discussion of capitalism, crisis and class struggle. Furthermore, the question of energy is also crucial to anti-capitalist resistance and the construction of non-capitalist ways out of the crisis.

The global renewable energy sector is still young and small relative to other sectors. This means that there is still a window of opportunity, as, for the most part the struggle has not yet been lost. As such, workers and communities are still relatively well positioned to shape the sector’s expansion. However, time is running out, and there is a lot of work to be done in order for workers and communities to change the power balance. The window of opportunity will soon be closed. Currently we are very ill-prepared for this, and companies are the only ones who are really prepared, as they have the technology and capital. There is even a very real danger that the sector can expand too fast, as the companies are the only ones who are ready to drive the transition.

As workers and communities, we are at great risk of being left behind, and being forced to pay the costs of the sector’s expansion, unless we are able to appropriate these technologies for ourselves, and turn them into tools of resistance and not tools of domination. This is why we have chosen to host this conference about socially-owned renewable energy.