Our Burning Planet


How innovation can help forge global solutions to the existential threat of climate change

How innovation can help forge global solutions to the existential threat of climate change
Illustrative image | Sources: Students gather outside Parliament during the climate crisis protest against governments' failure to take sufficient action against global warming on 15 March 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach) | Vapour from cooling towers at Eskom Holdings SOC’s Matla coal-fired power station in Mpumalanga, South Africa on 21 March 2022. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Rawpixel

Combining several sources of renewable energy is one of the most important strategies for ensuring a steady supply of power, but the intermittency of 100% clean electricity poses a major and expensive problem. However, it can be solved.

Climate change is a global environmental threat, and its effects are likely to worsen over the coming decades. While mitigation efforts (to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases and prevent the most menacing outcomes of climate change) are critically important, many effects will not be avoidable, requiring us to adapt. 

On a practical level, many of our most common human activities, such as growing and making things or getting from one place to another, involve releasing greenhouse gases. The modern, more energy-intensive lifestyle is expected to be adopted by increasing numbers of people in the world. This includes Johannesburg, which is expected to be a megacity (more than 10 million inhabitants) by 2030. While rising living standards are good news, if not properly regulated they can also increase our carbon footprint and thereby worsen climate change. 

As a developing country, South Africa is pursuing socioeconomic development priorities which aim to create jobs, reduce poverty and improve human wellbeing, health and education. It is important that the country position itself in a new low-carbon economy. 

A just transition may be challenging in its early stages, but is essential, fuelled by global warming and impending climatic catastrophe that may become irreversible and impossible to recover from. If the transition is well managed, particularly when developing clean energy systems, “‘we will all share in the benefits of affordable clean energy, healthy air and enough food to sustain us all”, as David Attenborough put it in his speech at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26). 

This essay captures the diverse considerations policymakers need to take into account when planning for affordable and just energy transitions. 

The significance of energy access and energy efficiency

It goes without saying that access to energy forms the basis for human civilisation. Energy-fuelled services, such as communications, cooking, lighting, household cooling and heating, prove indispensable in enabling human development and meeting their fundamental needs at the base of the Maslow pyramid. Moreover, energy, when produced cheaply and delivered efficiently, is key to sustainable economic development. 

History indicates that societies have moved from one energy source to another because the new source was cheap, efficient and even more powerful in output or “social good”. Energy efficiency, while essential, is also therefore the mother of invention. For example, humanity transitioned from wood to coal because more light and heat could be derived from the latter. 

A just energy transition to a low-carbon economy

The relationship between energy and economic growth helps us understand why access to energy is so important to human development. When community institutions such as local government buildings, health centres, schools and recreational facilities have access to affordable energy, they are better able to promote a just transition, attract more support from the community and improve the quality of life. Expanding access to energy is just, inclusive and systemic, as it reflects diverse priorities and requires an amalgamation of technologies, policies, abilities, finance and resources. 

A just transition will require that energy be accessible to all. Greater access to energy facilitates transformational changes in social and economic development. Although it can increase energy demand and unsustainable consumption patterns, and thus emissions, even limited access to modern clean energy can provide important benefits to energy-impoverished communities in areas such as health care, agriculture, biodiversity, income diversification and education. 

A just transition will also require that energy be affordable. Access to affordable energy will contribute to decent jobs for most workers, guarantee important social protections and human rights, increase productivity and create new opportunities for disadvantaged communities.

The declining cost of renewable energy will promote just and inclusive access to energy. Cheaper forms of renewable energy also allow individuals and regions that have been trapped in the fossil fuel economy to benefit from a just transition.

Energy access and agriculture

In the current economic climate, South African farmers are the group most affected by climate change. In the Northern Cape, increased floods and droughts threaten farmers with economic ruin. In other breadbasket areas, such as the Free State, crop failure associated with unpredictable weather patterns could bring a spiralling decline in food production and increasingly narrow the “social window of food security”. The Western Cape, which contributes 22% to national agricultural gross domestic product, may experience dire economic consequences, too. Agriculture and agro-processing are responsible for about 18% of employment opportunities. The drought in 2016-17 led to a loss of more than 20,000 jobs in the Western Cape’s agricultural sector. Farmworkers in the province are unlikely to be employed elsewhere, so these job losses will worsen poverty.

To mitigate risks faced by the agricultural sector, various adaptation options need to be tested, and this requires access to knowledge and information. Energy-powered information technologies such as radios, televisions and cellphones can provide valuable information to farmers, notifying them about new drought-resistant varieties, different farming methods and seasonal weather forecasts. 

Read in Daily Maverick: “The real deal with renewable energy in South Africa – unpacking the suite of options

Machine learning can help predict weather or the adverse effects of climate change for towns and cities, allowing people to take shelter, prepare and plan. Data collected by machine-learning algorithms can also be used to enhance the efficiency of renewable systems. For example, during floods or heavy rains, hydro systems can be used more effectively. Renewable energy in itself is not sufficient to supply the information currently unavailable to or withheld from a group.

Since the production of field crops consumes a significant amount of energy, energy prices affect the costs of production. However, to bring the desired benefits in food security, productivity and rural economic development, improving energy services for farmers should include increasing the energy input to agriculture. Agriculture is perhaps the sector best poised to benefit from clean energy access, through strengthened climate change adaptation and mitigation, invigorated economic growth and job creation. 

Maximising renewable energy

A just transition will require increased energy access to drive economic and human development. However, efforts need to ensure that supplementary energy is affordable, reliable and clean. Affordable, clean energy can be ensured by maximising renewable energy potential across different regions, by capitalising on topography, natural resources, location and available technology. For example, some provinces might rely heavily on wind, while others might have more potential to generate solar or hydropower. Combining several sources of renewable energy is one of the most important strategies for ensuring a steady supply.

Adapting to a warmer world with clean energy

The changing climate is going to force us to consider entirely new needs, as we seek to adapt to a warmer world while avoiding maladaptation. In addition, we need to recognise that power systems will be vulnerable to the changing climate. Both the supply and demand of energy will be affected by climate change. 

The risk of damage to transmission lines will increase with more frequent and extreme events such as storms, cyclones and floods. One such event was experienced on 24 January 2021, when Tropical Cyclone Eloise swept large regions of the country, bringing heavy rainfall and flooding with strong winds. Heatwaves will also increase the demand for electricity for cooling. 

These extreme events will have a direct impact on energy-supply infrastructure, regardless of whether it is produced by fossil fuels or renewable energy. Thus, climate-proofing buildings shouldn’t be the only priority; alternative energy systems should be considered as well. Adaptation to a warmer world will be expensive, so the economic feasibility of climate-proofing renewable energy systems should be discussed. Currently, the most affordable power systems are based on solar, wind, battery energy storage and hydro.

Educating the public about possible solutions, including where support can be accessed, can help society adapt to the new circumstances. We should invest in technologies that have greatly widened the scope and improved the speed of communications. Most of these technologies need electrical power and can be promoted through community-level renewable energy projects. Access to clean energy will be vital, since it allows for broad economic and social development by powering agricultural, commercial and industrial activities. People have a greater capacity to adapt if they are well informed, healthy and financially secure.

Being realistic about innovation and the inevitably slow pace of energy transitions

Modern societies are increasingly looking to innovation as a catalyst for development. Society believes innovation will unlock every imaginable portal – from enabling self-driving cars, to consolidating machine and human consciousness, to increasing average life expectancy to beyond 100 years, to harnessing energy from wind and the sun, which are as free and green as energy can be

In South Africa, coal-fired and nuclear power stations have a total capacity of about 42 gigawatts (GW). This represents 87% of national energy consumption – 83% for coal-fired stations and 4% for nuclear power stations. The young age of some power stations, coupled with their typically long lifetimes, means that a sudden exit from these energy sources poses an existential threat to the South African economy. 

We must explore new funding models provided by public-private sector partnerships to drive the transition and bridge the inevitable gaps in energy supply. Additionally, we must ensure that the transition to clean and renewable sources provides affordable, efficient energy. By using a cleaner energy blend of solar, wind and gas-fired power instead of coal-fired power stations, and by exploiting the considerable efficiencies of this energy in businesses, homes and industries, South Africa can reduce its emissions. As power sources, wind and the sun are intermittent, but our need for electricity is not. We need electricity all the time to meet the targets of our economic growth plan or trajectory. 

Thus, although solar and wind will play a huge role in our “energy mix”, we will need additional sources for when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. The two currently available options are storing the excess electricity generated in summer in batteries and adding fossil-fuel sources that run only when they are needed, such as natural gas plants. 

The intermittency of 100% clean electricity poses a major and expensive problem, but it can be solved through innovation, such as using properties that are informally held and whose ownership is not legally recognised by the state. This will make it easier for investors to fund projects with agricultural potential. 

The slow rise of solar cells

Technological advancements and the falling cost of solar power and battery storage make smart mini-grids and decentralised, self-sufficient energy supplies a viable option for many rural communities. In fact, they are often more reliable than the national grid, and thus less exposed to load-shedding and damage to powerlines. 

Unlike smaller independent power systems, smart mini-grids can supply AC power, enabling people in rural areas to use devices and appliances that increase income opportunities and improve quality of life. With improved technological innovations such as smart meters and portable battery charging, electricity from smart mini-grids is becoming inexpensive

This makes solar photovoltaic (PV) a more reliable energy source for smart mini-grids than other renewable energy alternatives. These alternatives should be deployed in ways that empower communities. This will help strengthen community organisation and decision-making, including creating relationships with regional stakeholders, which can empower communities to act independently in response to climate change effects. 

The energy transition will bring significant changes in employment, leading to the loss of existing jobs and creation of new ones. In a just transition, the decline of some industries shouldn’t diminish workers’ rights and the quality of their work. The government, social partners and industries must collaborate to ensure that the right frameworks, retraining and social protections are in place for workers in these declining industries, as well as those in emerging and transforming sectors. 

The government should analyse the transition’s impacts across sectors of industry and society. This could inform the development of social and economic policy frameworks that direct finite public resources to where they will best support vulnerable communities through the transition.

Working on government policy, technology and markets to level the playing field

Greenhouse gas emissions must be greatly reduced in the coming decades. For this to happen, greater policy attention is needed to speed up the penetration of existing green technologies and practices, such as policies that encourage greater energy efficiency. We also must factor in “global markets”, helping companies that come up with new inventions by making sure that these reach a global scale, as well as financial markets and investors to back these efforts. 

Technology, global markets and policies have to work in complementary ways, and policymakers need to be clear about the objective they are trying to achieve and the green technologies they wish to promote. Adopting a zero-emissions standard for cars, for example, will not work if no technology exists to eliminate emissions or no companies are willing to manufacture and sell cars that meet the standard. 

A success story where technology, global markets and policies worked together effortlessly began in the 1970s, when EU countries, the US and Japan started investing early in solar energy research, and companies continue to make large research and development investments in the field. In the 1990s, solar technology improved, leading more companies to produce solar panels, but this technology wasn’t broadly adopted until Germany lifted the market by offering low-interest loans to install panels, as well as a fixed government payment per unit of renewable electricity to anyone who generated surplus solar power. 

In 2011, the US began using loan guarantees to fund the five biggest solar arrays in the country. China played an important role by coming up with innovations that make solar panels cheaper. Largely as a result of these countries’ efforts, the price of solar-generated electricity has dropped by 90% since 2011. 

South Africa has a similar success story with its Renewable Energy Independent Power Procurement Programme (REIPPP), which has been running for more than 11 years. It has achieved remarkable success, procuring more than 6.3GW of renewable energy generation capacity, with more than 2.4GW of capacity connected and feeding the national grid. Wind and solar PV projects comprised the majority of the 6.3GW, at 5.65GW. 

The renewable projects are located in various provinces, with 86% of the solar PV projects in the Northern Cape. Most of the wind projects are located in the Eastern and Northern Cape. The REIPPP is well positioned to continue contributing significantly to the government’s strategic infrastructure projects. 

Further improvement could be achieved if the South African government invested in research, collaborated with private companies by investing in their research and development projects, accelerated the demand for innovation projects, reduced risks and lowered costs, built infrastructure to get green technologies to market and changed market rules to make it easier for new green technologies to compete with cheap fossil fuels.

A just energy transition requires cooperation

The response to climate change will require international solidarity, not unilateralism. Such solidarity was demonstrated at COP26 in Glasgow, when five nations contributed $8.5-billion in aid and technical assistance to help South Africa transition to a low-carbon economy in line with the Paris Agreement’s ambitious objective of limiting the global temperature increase to well below 20C. 

In the same spirit, the Komati power station in Mpumalanga is projected to be the first coal power plant to be repurposed to a solar energy plant at the end of its life cycle in 2022. If not managed, the looming threat of climate change will pose an existential threat to communities and nations. We can avoid this if we boldly and multilaterally implement global solutions. 

It is easy to see what is holding up the deployment of these solutions and the advancement of needed innovations. Energy is the only universal currency, and its various forms must be transformed to get anything done. Thus, ensuring access to clean energy is a good point of departure for both climate adaptation and mitigation. DM/OBP

Sandile Kumalo is currently pursuing a PhD in Physics at the University of the Witwatersrand. His research focus is on improving the design of thin-film solar cell devices and enhancing their power conversion efficiency using various light-management strategies.

Read Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart Four, Part Five , Part Six and Part Seven

This essay is part of a series that explores challenges and opportunities relating to a just transition in South Africa, with a specific focus on enhancing resilience in ways that improve lives and livelihoods. The series is being published in the lead-up to the Presidential Climate Commission’s multistakeholder just transition conference on 5 and 6 May. This essay series has been produced by the Presidential Climate Commission Secretariat and New Climate Economy, with support from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The interpretations and findings set forth in the essays are the authors’ alone.


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