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Renewables a no-brainer: We the people can end load shedding and cure our addiction to fossil fuel

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Dr Roland Ngam is programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southern Africa. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Investing in renewables is not as far-fetched as we think. Renewables will help reduce stress on water sources, lower temperatures, improve air quality and put more money in your pocket. That’s right — more money in your pocket, way more than what you will ever get from coal and gas. Now that is a message that even the climate sceptics can get behind.

The most disappointing thing about the sudden mobilisation against the Karpowership contracts is the timing and direction of the engagement. A lot of the public anger that we have seen, and which coincided with another round of load shedding, is directed at potential rigging of the process by people connected to energy minister Gwede Mantashe and not the fact that over 20 million tonnes of methane and carbon dioxide will be dumped into the atmosphere over the next two decades, plus all the ocean heating and marine habitat destruction that will come with eight ships being stationed off the country’s coast.

The anger is also reactive, rather than proactive. We cannot say that we did not see this coming. The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy informed us well in advance of its plans to award independent power producer (IPP) contracts to fossil companies. It prepared a shortlist and still there was no reaction from the public or from the unions that have a vested interest in protecting their members.

We the people effectively outsourced this momentous decision, one that is going to commit South Africa to a 20-year, R218-billion contract, to a small group of individuals. Now, we have to deal with the consequences.

The point I want to make is the following: South Africa is currently trapped in a dual energy-ecological crisis and it will take the collective effort of all of the body politic’s parts to emerge at the other end of the tunnel. Simply outsourcing decision-making to the top is an abdication of responsibility. If we look to the North, we will see that people’s power is already shaping the energy and infrastructure deals of most major economies.  

We have watched for example as Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, Ende Gelände, green parties and other sustainability movements have pushed the governments of the G20 economies into accelerating the transition from fossils to renewables. In these economies, you can no longer get elected to high office if you do not have an ambitious environmental programme.

In the United States, the Democratic base has pushed President Joe Biden to re-enter the Paris Climate Agreement and reintroduce environmental protections and efficiency measures for the motor industry. Although the Republican party is firmly behind fossils, polling shows that over 65% of Americans believe that the federal government should do more to reduce the impacts of climate change.

In France, the Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat (Citizens’ Convention on Climate) forced President Emmanuel Macron to act more swiftly on climate change. Persistent calls for tougher environmental protections grew so loud during Macron’s second year in office that his government invited activists to the French parliament and gave them a platform to come up with a list of priorities.

The citizen’s assembly debated in the hemicycle of the French parliament, where parliamentarians usually sit, and adopted ambitious policies including the reduction of the workweek, shortening of food supply chains, making the transport system more efficient, rolling back consumption and reviewing how France builds. Although only a watered-down version of their proposals was voted into law, the majority of French voters across the political spectrum now view environmental protection as a key deciding factor ahead of next year’s elections.

In Germany, where a majority of the population is now anti-coal, Armin Laschet, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s putative successor and minister-president (premier) of Germany’s number one coal producing region of North Rhine-Westphalia is struggling to shake off his reputation of fossil industry hawk after seeing off rival Markus Söder of Bavaria. Laschet’s CDU/CSU coalition currently trails The Greens party’s Annalena Baerbock in the latest polls, a clear sign of how important Germans view urgent and bold mitigation and adaptation measures.

There are many more examples of course. The common theme here, and what I want you to see, is the role of we the people in these countries. It is we the people who are demanding action now and forcing their governments to adopt ambitious climate programmes. We the people are saying Ende Gelände — it ends now!

Even the International Energy Agency (IEA), which once dismissed solar as a serious source of energy for major economies now admits in its “Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector” that solar is now cheaper than coal and gas. Renewable electricity already represents 28% of global electricity production, with 9% of that coming from solar and wind. In terms of growth, solar PV has been the fastest-growing source of energy over the past half-decade. The IEA report recommends that we need to stop new coal, oil and gas projects now in 2021 in order to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Page 152 of the report gives us a clear pathway to net zero emissions.

This brings us back to South Africa. Investing in renewables is not as far-fetched as we think. In fact, it is in our best interest to act now as renewables will help reduce stress on water sources, lower temperatures, improve air quality and put more money in your pocket. That’s right — more money in your pocket, way more than what you will ever get from coal and gas. Now that is a message that even the climate sceptics can get behind.

Let’s do some quick calculations, shall we? We know that Eskom’s financial difficulties are incredibly difficult to overcome, as Stephen Grootes and others have shown, and so they are going to lean more and more on IPPs. For this reason, we the people should demand to play an active role in the country’s energy transformation. How? Let’s start with the R218-billion which the Karpowerships deal is expected to cost over 20 years. This may be flawed in some regards, but bear with me for the purposes of this example.

The Risk Mitigation Independent Power Procurement Programme contracted a total of 1,845 megawatts of electricity. That is enough to power the entire city of Cape Town, according to Eskom. How many solar PV installations do you think we can make with R218-billion?

A calculation by James de Villiers shows that a 4-7kWp PV installation for a small home “can cost anything between R60,000 and R105,000, excluding battery costs”. If we suppose that each unit will initially cost R100,000, then R218-billion can buy 2,180,000 PV set-ups. The R100,000 figure can be driven down by a government subsidies programme. A thriving market with more PV businesses, trades and so on will also drive down set-up costs. Prosumer (producer-consumer) households in Australia are already paying as little as R36,000 for 3kW grid-connected systems.

On to wind. There are many household kits available for under R11,000 that can light up a few bulbs and power one or two appliances, but let’s go big, shall we? A 1MW wind turbine costs about  $1.3-million per megawatt of electricity-producing capacity. Let’s suppose that 1,200 households decide to invest in a 2MW wind turbine at a cost of about $2.5-million. That is R33,706,850 at the current currency exchange or about R28,089.04 per household. How many 2MW wind turbines can R218-billion buy us? About 6,467. Enough to power 7.7 million homes. Now, the average lifespan of a wind turbine is 20 years, which works out to R1,404 per annum for initial costs per household. The report of the Wind Atlas for South Africa shows that the country is blessed with wind. You just cannot beat those numbers. Plus they will come with thousands of new jobs.  

Obviously, I am the first to admit that these calculations are very quick, somewhat simplistic and must come with caveats. They do not factor in the workforce, replacement parts, wind speeds, environmental costs of PVs, environmental impact assessment studies and so on. However, it gives us a clear idea of what is possible and it tells us why the IEA is so bullish on renewables.

More importantly, it tells us that we the people can make load shedding history if we want to. The best way to approach such projects is in groups, rather than as individuals. Jurisdictions like Ekurhuleni and Stellenbosch are already planning to do just that.

Remember that energy minister Mantashe has spoken about transforming Eskom into a Netherlands-type utility company (is that where the unbundling process is going?). Also remember that there is another round of IPP awards happening later this year.

If South Africans are really interested in dictating the type of energy mix that this country should have, now is a good time to start investigating those outcomes. Ending load shedding within the next few years is within our power if we the people choose renewables today. DM

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  • I think the danger here is thinking that the smaller systems will get you of the grid, not going to happen. However if Escondido would change their attitude and willingly accept the extra electricity I am able to generate from panels and use it, this would assist with the problem. Instead they are now talking of charging me because they are the only legal power generator. I have spent R600k on my system and I’m not off the grid. However I could pass all of the extra power to Escom to use to help take the strain off the system. I don’t want money in exchange for this, just a credit note. I wrote to top management explaining what I would like to suggest. However their answer is to threaten to charge people extra as they see you as reducing their income by generating you’re own electricity. When will they realise that I am generating my own electricity because they cannot be depended upon. Really guys, get your priorities right. It’s most unfortunate that the initial reason for installing the system was the fact that I was travelling regularly and when we lost Escom supply, my wife had no security. Time for them to consider their customers and not their crappy business which in need of a major overhaul due to it being historically in efficient. Maybe we should stop supplying to Zimbabwe at night. We are supplying electricity to them which increases wear and tear on the system for which we pay. Time for Escom to get their priorities right.

    • 600k and you’re not off-grid? I guess it depends entirely on your energy consumption. Do you mind me asking how many units of power you use a week/month? My house (with 2 people) uses about 300 units a month during summer and 600 units a month during winter. We currently only have a solar geyser, which is undoubtedly a great benefit during sunnier days.

  • In the hands of a kleptocratic ruling party, why would you give up absolute control of a resource like providing ‘energy’ … even if you can’t manage it properly ? Even municipalities have cottoned on and introduced things like ‘supply’ or ‘connection’ costs on electricity and water, which our constitution defines as ‘essential’ !

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