The lure of millions in Eskom funding appears to have muzzled two research institutions previously highly critical of the state-owned utility’s plans to procure a fleet of nuclear power stations.
In the case of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) amaBhungane understands that the CSIR’s Energy Centre has been effectively gagged since a secrecy-shrouded meeting in March this year between acting Eskom CEO Matshela Koko and his counterpart at the CSIR, Dr Thulani Dlamini.
In the other case, the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies (CRSES) at Stellenbosch University withdrew comments it had submitted for publication that were highly critical of Eskom’s nuclear plans.
In an email seen by amaBhungane, CRSES director Wikus van Niekerk said: "We receive significant funding from Eskom, some from a programme where Matshela is personally involved in, and I need to be careful how I react in public not to put this at risk."
Eskom, the CSIR and CRSES have all denied that Eskom has in any way tried to rein in independent research or debate on nuclear or renewable energy options.
Several industry insiders, who asked not to be named, raised the alarm after the CSIR Energy Centre’s head, Dr Tobias Bischof-Niemz, suddenly pulled out of an event on South Africa’s future energy supply in early April.
They told amaBhungane that a strong rumour had emerged that at Koko’s March meeting with the CSIR chief executive, Eskom had pledged a significant sum - R100 million was mentioned - for CSIR research on technology related to nuclear energy.
AmaBhungane was unable to independently verify the claim.
While there is no evidence of any untoward quid-pro-quo, the same sources noted that the Energy Centre has withdrawn from other public engagements on renewable energy and South Africa’s future energy mix.
Adding to suspicions is the reluctance of both Eskom and the CSIR to disclose any detail of the meeting between Koko and Dr Dlamini.
Both institutions declined to answer questions about who attended the meeting, what was discussed and whether Koko offered the CSIR additional funding, as rumoured.
Eskom spokesperson Khulu Phasiwe told amaBhungane the two institutions have had a long-running partnership: "CSIR and Eskom continue to enjoy a strong relationship in spite of occasional, but understandable, disagreements. Interim Group Chief Executive, Mr Matshela Koko, meets with our partners on a continuous basis and, by their nature, these meetings are confidential."
Phasiwe said Eskom had R30.8 million worth of "multi-year collaborative projects" underway with CSIR and another R17.5 million worth were "actively under consideration".
The CSIR insisted the organisation "did NOT receive any payments from Eskom in order to stop any research that we are conducting," but ignored questions about Bischof-Niemz’s non-attendance at the April event where he was scheduled to give a presentation on renewable energy.
Up to now the Energy Centre has been vocal about its research on South Africa’s optimal energy mix, which suggested that the price of renewables had dropped to the point where government’s plan to procure 9,600 MW of nuclear power did not make financial sense.
By contrast, the Centre’s recent formal response to the Department of Energy’s latest draft energy policy – the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) – was quietly placed on the CSIR website in early April without publicity or further commentary.
Asked about this, CSIR spokesperson Tendani Tsedu said: "The organisation will not comment any further on the submission made to the DoE since the CSIR submission is already public information as indicated above. This will also allow the DoE to conclude its internal processes towards the finalisation of the IRP."
Last year the Centre began publishing the findings of its studies into South Africa’s future energy scenarios.
The groundbreaking research showed a strong preference for renewable energy and posed a major challenge to the case for nuclear, of which Eskom has been a strong proponent.
The results of the research were widely cited and the Centre’s staff presented their findings at conferences, seminars and business and technical briefings. They also did not shy away from voicing critical opinions on energy matters in the media.
But sources close to the Centre told amaBhungane that the Centre’s staff appear to have been muzzled and are now avoiding public engagements on their renewables and IRP-related research.
According to Dudley Baylis, energy director of Bridge Capital - one of the organisations involved in the April event where Bischof-Niemz was due to speak - the Energy Centre informed the organisers at the last minute that they were "unable to share their energy scenario work".
Other sources say that the Centre has recently had to cancel similar events and media interviews related to energy systems, and that Bischof-Niemz is subject to a virtual gagging order by CSIR’s management.
Approached for comment, Bischof-Niemz referred amaBhungane to the CSIR’s communications manager.
The IRP is intended as a plan for meeting South Africa’s future electricity needs and is supposed to be regularly updated to take into account changes such as pricing and economic factors, electricity demand and technological developments.
Since this IRP was first promulgated in 2011, the cost of renewable energy has fallen dramatically and the country’s electricity demand has also slumped.
The CSIR study draws very different conclusions to the scenarios contained in the DoE draft update to the IRP, which still makes provision for nuclear.
Taking a "conservative approach", the CSIR determined that South Africa’s optimal energy mix to 2050 would entail investments in renewable energy in the form of solar photovoltaic and wind, complemented by flexible power such as gas, concentrated solar, hydro, and biogas, but, crucially, and contrary to government and Eskom’s plans, the CSIR study sees no need for new nuclear power.
The CSIR notes that the option outlined in its study would be cheaper, cleaner, and would create more jobs than the draft IRP scenarios.
The CSIR is not the only research institution that Eskom channels money to. The Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies (CRSES) at Stellenbosch University is another, and it too seems wary of upsetting Eskom.
Email correspondence seen by amaBhungane suggests that the independent research institute is willing to self-censor for fear of offending its funder.
The correspondence between CRSES director Wikus van Niekerk and the staff of Energize magazine - an energy sector trade publication - concerns a submission written by Van Niekerk that is strongly critical of Eskom’s nuclear plans.
After submitting the draft to the editors, Van Niekerk then refused to have it published as a standalone piece. In the correspondence Van Niekerk writes that "We [CRSES] receive significant funding from Eskom, some from a programme where Matshela [Koko] is personally involved in, and I need to be careful how I react in public not to put this at risk."
According to Eskom, CRSES received R2.6 million in 2016 from Eskom’s Power Plant Engineering Institute, with planned funding for this year projected at around R4 million. CRSES receives additional funding from Eskom’s Research, Testing and Development business unit for R2.5 million photovoltaic penetration study.
Eskom denies attempting to influence the work of independent research institutes.
"There are a number of other research initiatives in which were are investing as Eskom. Eskom has never imposed restrictions or threatened to pull out funding from CRSES or CSIR based on the criticism of the nuclear programme or for any other reason, as alleged," the Eskom spokesperson said.
Asked for comment, Van Niekerk said that his refusal to have his response published had to do with a misunderstanding between himself and Chris Yelland, the managing director of Energize’s publishers, and that he never intended for his response to be in the form of a standalone contribution, but that it was intended to be mixed in with commentary from different sources.
He added that his stance on renewable and nuclear energy issues is publicly known and that Eskom has never tried to rein in CRSES.
"What is true is that there is very little appetite inside Eskom for the RE IPPs [renewable energy independent power producers], some of which is based on gross generalisations and some fundamental misunderstanding of what the technology can achieve. We are continuously trying to inform the different stakeholders inside Eskom on the value of renewable energy and the risks, mostly financial, of a nuclear programme at this time," said Van Niekerk.
Critics say that Eskom appears determined to push ahead with nuclear and hostility towards those who speak against its nuclear ambitions has sometimes got personal.
In July last year former Eskom CEO Brian Molefe publicly called for EE Publishers, who publish Energize magazine, to be closed down. He later apologised.
Eskom has also been accused of dragging its feet in concluding long overdue power purchase agreements with renewable energy independent power producers, despite assurances from government and former energy minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson earlier this year that the agreements would be finalised.
Joemat-Pettersson had previously ordered Eskom to sign the outstanding agreements by 11 April. However, under Mmamoloko Kubayi, who replaced Joemat-Pettersson after Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet reshuffle, the deadline passed without agreements being signed.
Talk of the nuclear deal has revved up since Zuma’s highly controversial reshuffle, which many see as an attempt by the president to remove ministers - particularly at Treasury and the Department of Energy - seen as obstacles to a future deal.
The DoE under Kubayi asked that signing of power purchase agreements be delayed until she could meet with public enterprises minister Lynne Brown on the matter.
Meanwhile the investments of 37 independent power producers, worth approximately R58 billion, remain plagued by uncertainty.
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