EE Publishers, Micah Reddy, amaBhungane, 28 April, 2017
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.
Case 1: CSIR Energy Centre
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While there is no evidence of any untoward quid-pro-quo, the same sources noted that the CSIR Energy Centre has withdrawn from other public engagements on renewable energy and South Africa’s future energy mix.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 CSIR 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 CSIR’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 CSIR Energy 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 CSIR Energy 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 CSIR Energy 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 CSIR Energy Centre informed the organisers at the last minute that they were “unable to share their energy scenario work”.
Other sources say that the CSIR Energy 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.