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TUED Bulletin 123 – South Africa: Unions and Allies form United Front, Call for “Public Pathway” Approach to Energy Transition

The fight to defend public energy in South Africa has grown more intense in recent weeks. The country  has been hit by years of power cuts (“load shedding”) that is, TUED and its allies have argued, the direct result of years of political attacks on the public utility known as Eskom. 

In a major statement on July 26th, President Ramaphosa announced that the private sector was ready to address the country’s growing energy crisis, and the government intended to remove “red tape” in order to invite more investment from so-called independent power producers (or IPPs). South African Broadcasting Corporation footage of Ramaphosa’s statement is here. It includes a response from TUED’s Sean Sweeney towards the end of the broadcast that warned against expecting private companies to come to the rescue. 

The day after Ramaphosa’s statement, unions and allies in the social movements came together in Johannesburg to form a United Front to Address Loadshedding and resolved to fight for an alternative “public pathway” approach to energy transition. The meeting was organised by the Alternative Information and Development Center and TUED.  

Endorsing the United Front are key unions, including the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM); the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), the South African Trade and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU), and the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU).

 See: Full statement and signatories to the United Front initiative.

A similar statement was released by NUMSA .

Click here to read more.

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network. 

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TUED Working Paper – Hydrogen in the Transition to a Low-Carbon Future: The Case for Public Ownership

Recent years have seen a surge of interest in hydrogen, and especially in its potential role in decarbonizing energy systems and wider economies. References to “green,” “blue” and “clean” hydrogen may at times be confusing, but can also leave the impression that the important issues around hydrogen are simple and well understood, or at least should be relatively easy to sort out. TUED’s latest Working Paper, True Colors: What Role Can Hydrogen Play in the Transition to a Low-Carbon Future? argues that such an impression could hardly be further from the truth.

The paper argues that mainstream policy voices and private-sector interests have largely shaped and driven the debates around hydrogen, without seriously questioning, let alone challenging, current policy and ownership patterns. As a result, these debates often take place as if the priority is to choose among technology options, without worrying about what else might need to change in order for any of those options to be able to really help solve the climate and energy crisis.

Hydrogen and the Decarbonization Challenge

Hydrogen already plays an important role in many industrial and other processes. Large quantities of hydrogen are used in refining petroleum, in the production of steel, ammonia and other chemicals, as a coolant in power stations, and much more. Hydrogen can be used to produce electricity through fuel cells, which can power vehicles or be fed into electrical grids. It can be used as a fuel for heat or to drive gas turbines, or can be converted into ammonia or other fuels. In principle, it can be produced from “carbon-free” sources and used as a fuel in ways that produce only water as waste.

But ensuring that hydrogen can play a significant role in decarbonization would require both a major expansion of its use — into more of industry, as well as into sectors where it is currently hardly used at all, like transport and power generation — as well as the decarbonization of its own production — either by “capturing” emissions generated during its production from fossil fuels (often called “blue hydrogen”) or, preferably, by producing it through processes that generate few or no emissions to begin with (often called “green hydrogen”).

The paper provides an overview of the technical facts about hydrogen’s current role in the economy, as well as the much-expanded role it is expected to play in major decarbonization scenarios, and the levels of investment required to achieve that expanded role. It also explains the various “colors” of hydrogen that readers might encounter in these debates, and outlines the technical issues and challenges involved in the main options for decarbonizing hydrogen production that figure in popular reporting and debates. 

Regarding “green hydrogen for grid storage” in particular — which many consider to hold significant potential as part of decarbonized electrical systems based on wind and solar power generation — the paper offers a deep dive into the production processes involved, the options for storage, and the reconversion of stored hydrogen into usable electrical power. It argues that, given the energy losses and technical hurdles involved at each stage, relying on private sector investment to drive the scaling up of hydrogen in ways that support the kinds of decarbonization we need seems highly unrealistic. The paper argues that, given the technical challenges involved in scaling up hydrogen in line with meeting the decarbonization challenge, there can be little doubt that doing so requires a dramatic shift in approach — a shift away from trying to “incentivize” private investors, and toward a planned, coordinated mobilization under public ownership and control.

Hydrogen and the Case for Public Ownership

The paper concludes by offering reflections aimed at developing an alternative approach that offers a better chance at achieving decarbonization, and at allowing hydrogen to play whatever role it can in helping to reach that goal — a “pro-public vision for hydrogen in decarbonization.” It argues that only an approach grounded in public ownership, decommodification, and freeing the development and deployment of hydrogen (and other technologies) from the imperatives of profit stands any real chance of delivering the energy transition that workers, as well as their unions, communities and allies, urgently need.

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network. 

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TUED Working Paper 14 – Beyond Disruption: How Reclaimed Utilities Can Help Cities Meet Their Climate Goals

In recent years hundreds of cities have adopted 100% renewable energy targets. This has left many with the impression that cities are “taking the lead” in addressing climate change, showing more ambition than most national governments, and taking measures to disrupt energy markets in ways that challenge the dominance of large energy utilities. Cities are believed to be both riding and driving a technological revolution that is reflected in the growth of local-level energy generation and the proliferation of “distributed energy resources” such as rooftop solar panels, battery storage, and digital control systems. Electricity users, on this view, are becoming increasingly active players in electricity markets, turning from “consumers” to “prosumers.” The days of centralized power generation, from this perspective, are thus numbered.


TUED’s Working Paper 14, Beyond Disruption: How Reclaimed Utilities Can Help Cities Meet Their Climate Goals, shows that this image of cities as “climate leaders” is misleading, as is the idea that large energy utilities are becoming obsolete. The paper documents  the technical limitations of city-level energy generation (principally solar photovoltaics), and shows that public subsidies, not “active consumers” or competitive markets, are driving many of the changes taking place. 

The paper also shows that cities will not be able to reach their renewable energy targets without sourcing energy from large energy companies. This is already happening through power purchase contracts with for-profit entities, producing outcomes that contribute to energy poverty, compromise energy security, and cause technical problems that threaten to put climate targets beyond reach. The real “disruption” in electrical power systems is being felt by working people, while large energy interests continue to reign supreme. 

As an alternative, Beyond Disruption proposes a “public-public partnership” approach in which  progressive municipalities can partner with utilities to drive energy efficiency, conservation, digitalisation, and a managed growth in distributed generation. For this approach to succeed, however, energy systems must be brought back into public ownership, and utilities still under public ownership (full or partial) must be fully “demarketized,” and issued a “new mandate” that reflects social and ecological goals and operating principles. Rather than being compelled to meet the needs of private investors for “acceptable returns on investment,” reclaimed utilities will be key partners in what will be a decades-long effort to decarbonize the economy. 

Just a few years ago, proposals to reclaim energy to public ownership would have been dismissed as “mission impossible,” but today many in the policy mainstream are questioning the current “energy for profit” policy framework. Concerns about climate change, energy security, and unreliable power increasingly demonstrate the need for a public pathway approach to the energy transition.

As many unions today recognise, a public pathway approach will require repealing the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and 1990s and reversing the drive to further liberalise and privatise the electricity sector (a drive that is currently being pursued in many countries of the Global South).  A full-on energy transition must involve a phase-out of so-called competitive electricity markets and the decommodification of electricity, as articulated in the Trade Union Program for a Public, Low-Carbon Energy Future, which is already supported by 50 trade union bodies from two dozen countries and regions around the world.  

The reforms articulated by the Trade Union Program  would set the stage for strong partnerships between cities around the pursuit of climate targets and economy-wide decarbonisation. Reclaimed companies and municipalities should have full control over prices in order to address energy poverty and discourage the wasteful use of electricity.  Progressive cities that aspire to control their energy systems (including distribution grids) can build on what they have already achieved by using their political strength to insist on a full reclaiming of energy to public control. 

As the paper argues, “the incumbent energy companies will not be dis­rupted out of existence; rather, they will remain dominant as market players and, under the current neoliberal framework, they will help perpetuate an energy for profit regime. If this is not changed, then cities will not be able to reach their energy and decarbonization targets.

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network. 

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TUED: ‘Green Structural Adjustment’ in South Africa – A War on Workers and Climate

TUED Global Forum: February 25, 2022, 8:00-9:30am ET

On Friday, February 25th, 800 am – 930 am ET (find your local time here) Trade Unions for Energy Demoracy (TUED) is holding a Global Forum: “Green Structural Adjustment” in South Africa: A War on Workers and Climate.  Spanish and French interpretation will be available.

Register here.

At COP26 in Glasgow, the EU, the US and the UK announced it was going to “mobilize” $8.5 billion to accelerate South Africa’s transition away from coal in order to protect the climate.

A month later the IMF “advised” the South African government to downsize and break up (“unbundling”) its public utility (Eskom) in order to build a “A Green and Climate-Resilient Economy.” The “unbundling” of Eskom, “must be accompanied by a substantial downsizing and structural transformation of its operations, notably through a meaningful reduction of procurement and personnel costs. Eskom spends more than it earns, reflecting both its operational inefficiencies and unsustainable debt level. Competition from private firms is necessary. The resulting higher level of private investment should help finance the energy transition away from coal, contributing to climate change objectives.”

The IMF is pursuing the same policy in many countries in the Global South. But experience has shown that the privatization of power systems impedes the effort to move away from fossil fuels.

Unions and their allies in South Africa have put forward an alternative to this approach, one that keeps energy under public ownership, allowing a transformed and fully-resourced Eskom to drive the transition while preserving the country’s energy sovereignty.

Meanwhile, unions are leading an international effort to fight the energy privatization agenda and to reclaim energy companies to public ownership under a pro-public mandate that can address climate concerns.

A list of speakers will be circulated in the coming days.  Please register here

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network. 

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TUED Bulletin 109: A Public Energy Response to the Climate Emergency: A New Labor Forum Global Roundtable

TUED Coordinator Sean Sweeney recently contributed to a Global Roundtable on national public energy responses to the climate emergency. A summary follows, with links to the print and podcast elements of the roundtable.

The spring 2021 edition of New Labor Forum features three contributions making the case for public ownership of energy in different national contexts: South Africa, the Republic of Ireland, and Mexico.

First, Dominic Brown, based in Cape Town, South Africa, explains that renewable energy advocates and much of the country’s elite see the breakup and eventual privatization of the country’s public utility as necessary to ending the country’s dependence on coal for electricity. South African unions oppose this path and have cobbled together an alliance in defense of a reformed and “demarketized” national utility to oversee what will in any case be a very challenging transition to a low-carbon economy.

Next, Sinéad Mercier documents the achievements of the rural electrification program pursued in the 1930s by the newly independent Republic of Ireland. She notes that the privatization agenda pursued during the last two decades by the European Union has subverted the country’s public goods approach to electricity provision and has also failed to meet its climate targets.

Finally, Sean Sweeney’s contribution looks at the largely unnoticed efforts by Mexico’s left MORENA government to reverse the energy privatization process set in motion by previous administrations. While Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is not a “climate champion,” Sweeney suggests his actions could set the stage for a public goods approach to decarbonization. Read the full text here, and listen to the related podcast episode here.

 

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network.
 
For more information on how your union can be part of TUED, see here.
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International Trade Union Forum on Ecological and Social Transition

Over the past several months, TUED has been working with the main French trade union confederation CGT, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Alter Summit, and the Global Labor Institute Paris to convene this global event, which will bring together unions and allies from around the world. More information, and registration details, at this link.

In preparation for the Forum, TUED has partnered with both the energy and mining division of the CGT (FNME) and Public Services International to organize a session titled Towards a Public Energy Future. The session will take place on Wednesday, June 16, from 1300 – 1600 CET.

This session will share findings of the Interim Report developed by the Trade Union Task Force for a Public Energy Future. The final report of the Task Force will be completed before COP26 in Glasgow.

 

International Trade Union Forum on Ecological and Social Transition
June 14-18: 1300-1800 CET (Find your local time here.)
June 19: 1400-1700 CET (Find your local time here.)

The social and environmental emergency, as well as the dramatic deterioration of the working and living conditions of a majority of the population since the beginning of the pandemic, has led a growing number of organizations – from company unions to professional federations to local, regional and international organizations – and other social movements to develop various strategies to respond.

This Forum was co-organized for several months with organizations from all continents. It will be an opportunity to share experiences, proposals and struggles of unions and their allies. The themes discussed will mainly revolve around: the transformation of the energy system, sectoral transitions and strategies for building power relations. Each thematic workshop is the result of preparatory work that we wish to bring up for debate. Texts summarizing our collective reflections will be made available to participants before the Forum.

The International Trade Union Forum for an Ecological and Social transition will be organized around daily sessions from 1pm to 6 pm from June 14 to 18. The sessions will combine presentation and discussion time.

It will conclude on Saturday, June 19 from 2:00 to 5:00 pm with a plenary assembly where a united appeal will be presented in view of the Cop26 in Glasgow and addressed to all social forces engaged in the construction of an ecological and social transformation. Register here.

 

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network.
 
For more information on how your union can be part of TUED, see here.
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Resist and Reclaim: Mexico’s Fight for Energy Sovereignty

TUED Global Forum: Mexico’s Energy Sovereignty

Mexican energy politics have made headlines in recent weeks following a political confrontation between the AMLO administration and actors in both Mexico and the U.S. that oppose his efforts to reverse the previous administration’s steps towards privatization, and reassert the country’s energy sovereignty.

This is a pivotal moment for energy politics in Mexico — the second largest economy in Latin America — with potentially global implications for the dominant neoliberal “privatize to decarbonize” agenda. Unions in Mexico support AMLO’s proposals. A successful campaign to defend AMLO’s proposed energy policies opens the door to a “pro-public” approach to energy transition.

Unions internationally have an opportunity to build solidarity with this struggle and raise awareness about its wider significance.

TUED is holding a Global Forum on Thursday March 25 2021 at 11am-12:30pm US Eastern Time

Find your local time here. Register here

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TUED Bulletin 106: French Energy Union FNME-CGT Endorses TUED Call for Public Energy in Texas

In a March 8 Press Release, FNME-CGT — the energy and mining division of French trade union confederation CGT — has republished a TUED briefing paper on the recent power sector crisis in Texas. TUED’s briefing paper argued that the recent catastrophic power sector failures in Texas “serve as a stark warning that unregulated, privatized and marketized electricity systems pose a serious threat to human life.”

As previously reported in TUED Bulletins 104 and 105, FNME is currently involved in a major struggle by striking French electricity and gas workers in defense of the country’s publicly owned energy company, EDF. The target of the strikes is a set of proposals being advanced by the French government, at the heart of which is a plan to “restructure” the country’s major national power utility, EDF. According to the unions, the proposed changes would undermine EDF’s ability to continue to operate as an integrated public utility, would jeopardize energy security and jobs, and would be against the general public interest.

Over the December holiday period, 33 union bodies from 20 countries and regions signed a statement of solidarity with the striking unions and workers.

With support from global union federation Public Services International (PSI), FNME-CGT and TUED are currently working to convene a Trade Union Task Force on Decarbonisation.

The Task Force will produce an interim analytical report to guide the development of a “Trade Union Charter for Public Energy in Europe,” which will be debated at a June meeting being convened by the French trade union confederation, CGT.

The June meeting will also bring together social forces from across and beyond Europe to explore and debate a broad range of issues related to the socio-ecological transformation.

Unions interested in participating should email Irene Shen at ireneTUED@gmail.com.

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TUED Bulletin 105: Defending Public Energy, French Energy Unions Build International Support

In recent weeks, French electricity and and gas workers have been striking in defense of the country’s publicly owned energy. These actions have been led by French energy union federations FNME-CGT, CFE-CGC Énergies, FO Energie et Mines and FCE-CFDT.

Over the holiday period, 33 union bodies from 20 countries and regions signed a statement of solidarity with the striking unions and workers.

The target of the strikes is a set of proposals being advanced by the French government. At the heart of these proposals is a plan to “restructure” the country’s major national power utility, EDF. According to the unions, the proposed changes would undermine EDF’s ability to continue to operate as an integrated public utility, would jeopardize energy security and jobs, and would be against the general public interest.

For additional background information, you can read the recent Letter from CGT EDF Directors (in French; English translation available here).

As a next step, the unions will hold a “Day of Action” on Tuesday, January 19th, in a continuing display of opposition to the government’s proposals. On Twitter, you can follow developments directly (in French) via @FNMECGT.

IndustriALL Global Union has also expressed solidarity with the striking workers as part of its ongoing reporting on this crucial struggle over many months.

TUED is encouraging unions to share news of this important ongoing struggle in the fight for climate protection and a sustainable future with their members and networks.
See more information here.

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network.
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A Discussion for Activists – Climate Emergency, Energy Democracy and the Labour Movement

Labour movement activists are invited to participate in an open discussion on Climate Emergency, Energy Democracy and the Labour Movement in the evening of 10th July 2019, at the Mechanics Institute, 103 Princess Street, Manchester, M1 6DD. Free Admission.

This discussion will follow a meeting between UK labour movement representatives and international allies in Manchester on 9-10 July to discuss climate emergency, public control over the power sector and the Labour Party strategy for decarbonisation.

This meeting is being organised by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (GLI New York) and the Global Labour Institute (GLI Manchester), with the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

Invited participants include

  • Sean Sweeney, Director of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, New York
  • Rebecca Long-Bailey MP
  • John Mark Mwanika, Programs Officer at ATGWU, Uganda, and Chair of the Urban Transport Committee of the International Transport Workers Federation
  • Stephen Smellie, UNISON Scotland
  • Jim Mowatt, UNITE National Environment Spokesperson
  • Clara Pallard, President, Culture Group Executive Committee, PCS
  • Nessim Achouche, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Brussels