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Battle over green energy project


The community of Victoria West has issued notice to stage a march on August 21 in an attempt to persuade Ubuntu Municipality to conclude a contract for the R100 billion Ubuntu Green Energy project.

File picture: Pixabay

THE COMMUNITY of Victoria West has issued notice to stage a march on August 21 in an attempt to persuade Ubuntu Municipality to conclude a contract for the R100 billion Ubuntu Green Energy project.

The project is one of the nine hydrogen projects to be fast-tracked in the country.

Victoria West residents are aggrieved over delays after the project was supposed to start on August 1.

They indicated that while the site required 5 726.6 hectares of land, the municipality was only prepared to avail a smaller plot of ground.

They stated that people were desperate for jobs as there was a high unemployment rate in the area.

According to a presentation, the project is expected to create about 500 manufacturing jobs, 250 service centre jobs, 200 power plant construction jobs and 3 000 temporary jobs and bring about a number of economic opportunities.

The director of Ubuntu Green Energy (UGE), Philip Hopley, said the project would enable Victoria West to become the first town in the country to be removed from the Eskom grid.

“It should take around six months for the town to produce its own environmentally-friendly electricity. Victoria West has the best combination of solar and wind energy in South Africa, where a continuous supply of renewable energy can be generated,” said Hopley.

“With the delays, we are estimating to start in January 2024. We have already completed pre-feasibility studies and environmental impact studies.”

Hopley added that he had attracted international investors for the establishment of the wind, solar, hydrogen and ammonia plants.

“Investors of the R100 billion will not hand over the funds unless the required size land is leased by the municipality. We do not want to purchase the land.

“We undertake to employ local labour and source locally-produced materials. We will also provide skills and training to youths. The community will be given a 10 percent stake in the project, with 60 percent local contractors employed on the project. The premier also expressed his support for this project.”

He indicated that they were consulting with the municipal manager and the mayor of Ubuntu Municipality to finalise the agreement.

“We have made presentations about plans for the construction of houses, a shopping mall, a private hospital, school, industrial park and solar greenhouse. Crops will be irrigated with recycled sewage water and fertiliser. Trucks will be fuelled with hydrogen and we are also looking at constructing a hydrogen train station.”

Ubuntu municipal manager Levona Itumeleng stated that she was being placed under duress to sign the contract.

“I have been subjected to intimidation and threats, without being afforded space and time to apply my mind properly. My door has always been open to UGE despite being threatened with legal action,” said Itumeleng.

“Even after the mayor was assaulted by protesters and my physical well-being was threatened, I am still available for any engagements with UGE.”

She emphasised that while she was not against the project, she had a fiduciary responsibility to follow due diligence and protect the assets of the municipality.

Itumeleng said that she was “inundated with unresolved and incomplete private investor-driven projects”, including the UGE project, when she was appointed.

“This notarial lease is for UGE to have control over municipal land for the next 75 years. This will mean that anyone who wants to do business with the municipality will have to first obtain permission from UGE. This could infringe on future investors. None of my predecessors were willing to sign the notarial contract. Yet the community and project owners want to take me to court, 106 days after I took office on May 3.”

She indicated that she was concerned that the project leaders wanted to lease all available land in Victoria West.

“This includes key pockets of land such as the municipal quarry, commonage, oxidation ponds, aerodrome, an expansion for low-cost housing, the cemetery and golf course.

“This will leave no land for emerging farmers to graze. This project will be in need of clear airspace with no hindrances such as tall wind turbines. Most importantly, the contract requires the municipality to sign over the use of our water sources.”

She believed it would be irresponsible to sign off 5 726.6 hectares of land to one investor or dispose of land that was needed by the municipality for development or the provision of basic services.

“No guarantees were provided for the project. It was recommended that the UGE project could purchase or procure privately-owned land, although they did not explore this option.”

She explained that they had scheduled a meeting with the project leaders after they requested them to proceed with negotiations, a few days after they informed them that the investor had withdrawn on August 4.

Itumeleng added that the project leaders were unable to commit to a written value proposition despite numerous requests.

“I cannot confidently quantify the value of the project. No financial projections have been provided, thus I cannot accept or deny the R100 billion claim. There are no guarantees of the anticipated job opportunities that may be created as estimates depend on several factors. Out of the 4 500 jobs, 3 200 are temporary where most of the permanent jobs are for highly-skilled individuals.”

She stated that she had not been in the employment of the municipality when an agreement was signed by UGE on May 1, 2021.

“There are no signatures on behalf of the municipality. We were not provided with a work breakdown structure. Even if this notarial lease gets signed today, jobs/construction will not start immediately. Therefore an amended contract is needed and the municipality will also introduce suspensive conditions.

“While we are committed to socio-economic development, the current demands of the project leader may jeopardise public assets for the benefit of a sole investor.”

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