South Africa has long relied on coal to produce cheap electricity - or what we were led to believe was cheap electricity. This cheap, but dirty fossil fuel has driven our country’s economy for many decades, and has, alongside this development, created many thousands of jobs both in the mining and energy sector. Our power production and supply has largely been in the hands of Eskom, as a state-owned utility, and we have relied on this large entity to supply our power. In fact, Eskom is rated as probably the third largest utility in the world given its installed base of approximately 40 000 MW. This is set to almost double by 2026.
In 2004, South Africa was hit by the first of what was to become known as ‘rolling blackouts’, essentially meaning Eskom just did not have enough power to meet the country’s demands, and when we did, Eskom just could not get it to the places it was needed. The former chairperson of Eskom, Bobby Godsell, was quoted as saying, “We have the cheapest electricity in the world, we’re just out of stock right now’. The system simply collapsed under the strain of a history of under-investment in generation and transmission infrastructure.
Our economic growth was placing unprecedented strain on the supply system. The mines suffered severely, and the ensuing loss in production resulted in massive job losses and income to South Africa, something we could ill afford. Alongside this, South Africa had embarked on ambitious plans to assess its carbon footprint and deal with a number of growing concerns around environmental issues. Emissions from coal plants, water pollution, water quality and availability, and generally the scale of our carbon footprint rapidly became the focal point of attention in most climate change debates.
What has become clear is that climate change is no longer an issue just for debate but that South Africa will have to rapidly develop mitigation and adaption strategies to deal with the growing impacts of climate change, of which evidence is steadily mounting. The recent Eastern Cape Provincial Climate Change Summit focused on many of the key issues, in particular how to deploy renewable energy technology to lessen South Africa’s reliance on polluting power sources which are now undeniably at the centre of the climate change storm. We also have commitments that President Jacob Zuma and the Cabinet have made in Copenhagen in 2009, and reaffirmed at the climate talks in Cancun in 2010.
A shift away from fossil fuel-based electricity and energy systems to a clean fuel is crucial for a number of reasons. Our country is well endowed with renewable energy which we can harness relatively inexpensively in comparison to polluting sources; we have more than enough sun, a very good wind regime (especially in land but also in the coastal areas), we have some reasonably good hydro potential, and then there is some small scale biomass, biogas and sewage-to-energy opportunities. The greatest opportunity though is in transforming the energy system to a decentralised one, this means a system where the energy is not all generated in Mpumalanga and Limpopo but where we exploit the resources close to the places where they are located and needed.
As we look at new energy systems, there will come a new set of benefits to South Africa. There are national benefits: wind energy doesn’t use anywhere near as much water as a coal plant - domestic users will not need to compete with coal-fired power stations for scarce water resources; wind energy will save carbon emissions, this means we are less likely to be penalised with international carbon taxes and cross border trade restrictions which negatively affect our country earnings; we will have less of a health burden, particularly in places that are heavily impacted on by emissions from coal plants that cause air pollution; we will lessen our reliance on fuel imports and expensive diesel plants, and thus derisk the economy.
In more direct terms, as an example, wind turbines will be located largely in rural and peri-urban areas on the land of farmers and communities, and this provides an opportunity for them to earn income from leasing some land to the wind farm or Photovoltaics (PV) plant operators.
For cash strapped farmers, this may be an opportunity to get an additional income to help fund agricultural development activities and improve the operations of the farm. Revenues from local ownership of the wind farms can be channelled directly into the needs of the communities, via ‘wind’ trusts or conventional trusts in local communities, as government and developers strive to ensure local empowerment takes place.
As wind farms and PV plants are establish, more and more local engineering and supply companies will start to become skilled in developing, building and operating these facilities and this will have major benefits for the local economy. More local engineers will need to be trained, and hopefully more young people will see renewable energy as a career opportunity. Small, Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMMEs) will be needed to provide services to local plants, and this will have a spin-off benefit for the local economy. As manufacturing of renewable energy equipment is established in South Africa new jobs will be created in the local economy as well.
For everyone involved, the change to a new renewable energy system will be sometimes slow and frustrating, but it is clear that South Africa cannot go on with its polluting ways and continue to face the impacts of climate change on its agricultural systems and in general its eco-system which are the glue and foundation that keep the economic system going. We are in a once-off transition to sustainability and South Africa is in a position to learn from the mistakes made by others, and not to repeat these very costly mistakes.
We are in a unique position too, in that we have the opportunity to embrace this transformation of the energy system in a manner that will deliver benefits to South Africans in a way that will alter many rural economies and areas forever, but in a manner that will see the possibility of improved agricultural and rural development that will help more people to fully participate in the overall economic transformation of South Africa.
- Davin Chown is director at Genesis Eco-Energy (Pty) Ltd. This article appeared in the July/August/September 2011 Transformer. It is republished here with the permission of Afesis-corplan, a NGO that has contributed to community-driven development and good local governance in the Border-Kei (Amathole) region of the Eastern Cape since 1992.