Is Renewable Energy The Answer For South Africa, Or Just Part Of The Green Agenda?

We cannot limit our conversation on renewable energy to one or two technologies when there is an entire suite of options available to fulfil our needs.

02/05/2017 03:57 SAST | Updated 02/05/2017 15:01 SAST
STR New/ Reuters

I think a good starting point is the question of what does electricity actually mean for South Africans, more specifically what does it mean for South African's who currently do not have access to electricity or those who have access but cannot afford to pay for the electricity supplied through the grid? Electricity is an enabler; it is part of a suite of energy products which people need to satisfy basic living requirements such as the ability to cook, to study at night, to keep your community safe, to better your circumstances.

As such the South African government has an obligation to provide all South Africans with access to affordable, safe, clean electricity. In terms of the debate currently happening in South Africa, it is important to note that the pro-nuclear and pro-fossil fuels lobby is not disputing the fact that renewable energy is cheaper than nuclear and coal, in fact they cannot make such an assertion because the evidence is clear. Based on the latest bidding round for renewable energy wind and solar PV new build tariffs are in the region of 0.62 R/kWh.

According to Eskom financial reports baseload coal is at 1.05-1.16 R/kWh. Based on work undertaken by EE Publishers on the Levelised Cost of Electricity for nuclear, the new build tariff weighs in at 1.17-1.30 R/kWh. The pro-nuclear and pro-fossil fuels lobby premise is a reliable and flexible electricity system on the back of an inflexible archaic model of electricity provision. South Africa is facing not just poverty but it is also facing inequality and unemployment. It is clear from global trends that the world is shifting from fossil fuels and embracing renewable energy.

New occupations and increasing levels of job opportunities are contained in the renewable energy sector. More people are being absorbed by the sector than by other sources and if you disaggregate the numbers by renewable sources, then you get to see that jobs are predominately in solar and wind. The current electricity sector based on the inflexible, archaic model is riddled by perverse fuel subsidies, rent seeking and negative cross-subsidisation. Basically, in this context, the ordinary South African citizen is paying for corporate public-private inefficiencies.

Evidence suggests that the nuclear industry suffers a structural handicap which prevents it from following a 'learning curve' normally expected within maturing technology-based industries, where the rate of return improves over time as the technology improves and problems are minimised with experience (such as we are seeing with the decrease in the cost of renewable energy as the technology matures). We as South Africans need to consider the source of the information we are receiving in the media and ask ourselves who has our best interests at heart? Is it our government and public utilities, with their vested interests in nuclear and fossil fuels, where daily scandals emerge of family members benefiting from massive procurement deals?

Is it the pro-nuclear and pro-fossil fuels lobbyists who are trying desperately to keep their failing industries alive to serve their own corporate interests? We cannot limit our conversation on renewable energy to one or two technologies when there is an entire suite of options available to fulfil our needs. Distributed mini-grids have the potential to provide electricity access to people in remote parts of our country where the central grid is unlikely to reach for the next decade or more.

Rooftop solar provides people with options that have never been available before in terms of self-generation and really putting the power back into people's hands. Whilst large-scale wind and concentrated solar power are technologically mature and already working to add renewable energy into South Africa's grid. In fact at a time when we were experiencing our worst load shedding, renewable energy was the only technology adding power into the grid, and doing it on time and in budget.