South African official floats ‘debt for climate’ plan for Eskom

PUBLISHED: Fri, 30 Jul 2021 17:20:51 GMT
Barbara Lewis
An Eskom sign stands outside the headquarters for Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd., South Africas state-owned electricity utility at Megawatt Park in Sandton, near Johannesburg, South Africa, on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. A plan to reform state-owned power company Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. and bring South Africa and its economy out of the dark is starting to show results, according to Chief Executive Officer Brian Molefe. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

JOHANNESBURG, July 30 (Reuters) – A debt crisis at South Africa’s struggling state-owned utility Eskom could be solved by an agreement for government creditors to write off some of their loans in exchange for climate pledges and an equity injection, a deputy minister said on Friday.

But one analyst was sceptical about the idea, describing it as unrealistic.

Officials in Africa’s most industrialised nation have grappled for years with ways to lower Eskom’s debt burden, which stood at 401 billion rand ($27.56 billion) in March.

The company, which regularly implements power cuts that hold back economic growth, racked up the debt partly to pay for two mega coal plants dogged by delays and cost overruns.

Two options previously discussed are transferring some Eskom debt to the sovereign balance sheet or moving a portion to a special purpose vehicle.

But in comments at a meeting of the presidential climate commission, South Africa’s Deputy Finance Minister David Masondo said he did not support those ideas.

Instead he proposed three ways to raise capital: listing Eskom on a stock exchange, inviting a foreign state-owned firm to invest or arranging a “sovereign-level debt for climate swap”. Under the last proposal, creditors would forgive some sovereign loans in exchange for commitments to curb Eskom’s emissions by closing some of its coal units and an equity injection into Eskom.

Read more: Is Chinese loan to South Africa’s Eskom in jeopardy?

Masondo said the ideas were his personal views, not necessarily the official position of the National Treasury.

“To get out of this debt situation we really have to think outside the box,” he said. “The continuous mantra that Eskom should improve its operational efficiency and that’s how we are going to deal with this debt, I don’t see that working, and we also don’t want them to raise the tariffs.”

The National Treasury acknowledged an emailed request for comment from Reuters but did not answer questions in time for publication. An Eskom spokesman declined comment.

Peter Attard Montalto, head of capital markets research at Intellidex, said Masondo’s suggestions risked confusing investors as they did not represent National Treasury or Eskom thinking.

He said: “It is completely unrealistic for a middle income country to expect principal write-off by creditors, especially when those creditors have traditionally had energy policy trust issues.”

($1 = 14.5502 rand)

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