Renewable Energy in South Africa
The transition to renewable energy in South Africa has been an uphill battle considering the nation’s historically heavy reliance on coal. However, ongoing efforts by the nation to accelerate the transition toward renewable energy sources offer cause for optimism.

South Africa’s Dependence on Coal

South Africa’s energy sector is highly dependent on non-renewable energy sources, namely coal. In 2021, coal-fired power stations accounted for more than 84% of South Africa’s energy with clean energy sources constituting just 13.7%.

The environmental consequences of the nation’s overreliance on coal are notable: in 2019, South Africa stood as the 12th highest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world. Moreover, the economic consequences of a coal-dominated energy sector are devastating for many South Africans as the nation’s economy continues to recover from the pandemic.

Ongoing Challenges with Energy Grid Failures

In South Africa, the need to address energy poverty is pressing as about 3.4 million households in the nation lacked electricity in 2015, according to the South African government. A recent strike in June 2022 by workers at Eskom, South Africa’s state-owned energy company, has led to prolonged electricity blackouts, amplifying already existing problems with the outdated, deteriorating coal-fired power stations and mismanagement. For many South Africans, these blackouts can mean up to eight hours per day without electricity.

Since 2008, Eskom has relied on load-shedding, or rotating blackouts, to mitigate the impact of the nation’s insufficient energy supply on consumers. The economic consequences of the more frequent blackouts in 2022 are severe, exacerbating inequality in a nation where more than half of the population lived in poverty in 2014, according to the latest World Bank data.

Amid the energy blackouts, poor families living in informal settlements and townships face disproportionate impacts and demand for electricity is only increasing as South Africa rapidly urbanizes. These recent energy grid failures and their negative repercussions on poverty point to the need to diversify South Africa’s energy sector.

Notably, South Africa has made substantial progress in expanding electricity access in the past — between 1994 and 2012, household electrification increased from 36% to an unprecedented 87%. Renewable energy sources have the potential to continue to fill the nation’s current void, alleviating the energy poverty that millions still experience. In 2014, South Africa’s Department of Energy set a target to provide electricity to 3 million households through the grid and an additional 300,000 households using non-grid solar energy, projected to resolve 90% of backlogs. While South Africa has not yet achieved this goal, the government has begun to zero in on renewable energy as instrumental to its approach.

South Africa’s Governmental Response

On July 25, 2022, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a series of interventions his government will take to address the energy crisis. Measures proposed include doubling the acquisition of renewable energy this year to more than 5,000 megawatts and providing incentives for households and businesses with rooftop solar panels to sell excess solar power to Eskom to reduce the need for load-shedding. These efforts to increase private sector energy generation are a necessary first step to facilitating this transition toward renewable energy in South Africa.

While these measures are an important start, South Africa will need to spend an estimated $250 billion over the next 30 years to finance shutting down coal-powered plants and transitioning to wind and solar power. Public resources lack the funds to provide sufficient backing for this effort. At the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2021, the U.S. along with European nations pledged only $8.5 billion to help South Africa transition away from coal. Thus, a significant contribution from the private sector will be critical.

According to Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe in December 2021, the South African government allocated $2.8 billion in contracts for 25 renewable energy projects to the private sector. These projects include wind farms and photovoltaic plants and should increase South Africa’s electricity capacity generation by nearly 5%.

Additionally, several companies are turning to solar energy, including South African Breweries (SAB), one of the nation’s largest companies. SAB aims to withdraw from Eskom’s grid, with the goal of sourcing 100% of its electricity from renewable energy by 2025. So far, these initiatives have shown promise: in 2021, SAB’s decision to transition to solar power resulted in more than 9,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions reductions.

New Investments in Renewable Energy in South Africa

As of August 2022, USAID and Prosper Africa are overseeing a delegation of U.S. investors with more than $1 trillion in assets visiting South Africa to meet with fund managers, looking to invest in the nation’s transition to renewable energy.

This visit also coincides with the U.S. government’s attempts to deepen diplomatic ties with South Africa. On August 8, 2022, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with South African Minister of International Relations Naledi Pandor to discuss the ongoing partnership between the two nations in trade and investment. Going forward, an active and continued diplomatic relationship between the two nations will be essential to achieve progress.

Looking Toward a Brighter Future

The possibility of large new investments in renewable energy in South Africa indicates a potential future of increased trade between the U.S. and South Africa. The transition away from coal-dominated energy will have transformative effects on the nation’s economic development, reducing poverty and deep-rooted inequality by creating a stronger, more reliable power grid and simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, the renewable energy industry represents an opportunity for tremendous job creation and increased economic opportunities.

– Oliver De Jonghe
Photo: Flickr

The South African government recently lifted a moratorium on fracking. Results of the decision are raising the stakes for both those for and against the controversial practice.

The Karoo is a beautiful but dry semi-desert stretching from the West coast of South Africa, across a third of the country. The land is ecologically rich in plants and wildlife, but also one of the country’s most economically impoverished regions. Some of the small towns along the highways experience unemployment rates as high as 90%, with welfare grants often a main source of income.

But beneath the surface of the majestic Karoo lies a potential solution to the region’s many economic problems and a source of great interest for energy companies. It is believed that there are large reserves of natural gas within the shale that could be accessed and extracted through hydraulic fracturing—better known as “fracking.”

“Moderately optimistic” figures from the South African government’s Department of Mineral Resources estimate oil reserves of 485 trillion cubic feet, and if just 30 trillion cubic feet were extracted, the potential gain could be about one trillion rand ($115 billion). However, it is not that simple. Fracking is a highly contested practice, and some believe it would destroy the fragile ecosystem and even livelihoods in the Karoo.

Fracking activists, or so-called “fractivists,” have been protesting shale gas exploration in the region since Shell started exploring in the area in 2011, and initially the government appeared to share concern. In April 2011, a decision by the Department of Mineral Resources to place a moratorium on exploration licenses in order to allow more time for a full investigation of the risks involved was endorsed by the cabinet. But the resultant report concluded that fracking could have a “major impact of the national economy” and create “direct employment opportunities” that could number in the tens of thousands.

The results led the Energy Minister, Dipuo Peters, to state, “It would be wrong not to use the resources that God left us with.” The moratorium was lifted in September 2012, and oil companies began preparations to move into the Karoo, raising the stakes of the debate even higher.

With oil companies gearing up to explore the Karoo, time for cultivating awareness is quickly running out. The government is expected to issue exploration rights near the beginning of next year. Following this, the anti-fracking lobby will have 30 days to submit a written appeal to the government.

The ruling African National Congress party seems in no mood to keep talking. Secretary-general Gwede Mantashe announced at the end of last month that moving forward with fracking was non-negotiable for a government keen to kick-start a stagnant economy. South African fractivists may have to take their appeals to the high court.

Scarlet Shelton

Sources: AllAfrica, DMR, The Herald
Flavio: The Guardian