The Silver Lining in South Africa's Power Crisis

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South Africa is in the grip of a severe energy crisis, complete with rolling blackouts, industries stopping operations, much blaming and frustration – and plenty of opportunities.

The crisis now squeezing Africa’s most industrialized (and electrified) nation has been brewing for some time. Eskom is one of the largest single electricity utilities in the world – it produces 96% of South Africa’s electricity and 85% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s electricity. Its electricity is the cheapest and among the dirtiest in the world. South Africa has been ranked as the least-efficient user of electricity out of 13 comparable upper middle-income countries (Brazil is more than twice as efficient, Hungary three times and Mexico four times).

Now, despite clear predictions in recent years of a looming shortfall, there is not enough power – either for South African citizens, industries and businesses, or for its neighbors who have long relied on its exported electricity. Billions are now being hastily allocated to Eskom to “quickly” build new coal-fired and nuclear plants. Most disturbing, there is very little mention and no serious funding for renewable power plants or energy efficiency programs.

Fundamental to the problem in South Africa is the centralization of power (in all senses of the word). Eskom is the proverbial tail that wags the dog. We are a country force fed, and by now heavily addicted to, big power from one utility and one source of energy (electricity from coal power). When we should have been investing in efficiency and renewables, Eskom and the government were pursuing a pebblebed pipedream (small nuclear reactors which we would sell to China – China has now built its own pebblebeds). Promising renewables like wind, wave and concentrating solar power plants are relegated to endless studies and even bogus pilot projects. Skilled staff have been laid off and maintenance schedules ignored. As with Jack’s giant or David’s Goliath, the colossus is falling. We stand at a moment in history which will determine South Africa’s energy future: do we shore up the giant, or do we make a break for it – and change South Africa’s energy picture forever, and for the better?

There is nothing like a crisis for opening the doors for much needed change. Suddenly energy has become everyone’s issue – and it is this ‘democratization’ of energy which can spur the change. But how? Cities have the potential to be key movers and shakers here. Energy is the life blood of cities and they stand out as highly energy intensive nodes. South Africa’s largest 10 cities use almost half of the country’s energy, they account for three quarters of the GDP and are home to 50% of the population. Cities have different regional functions, needs, climates and resources: it is time for cities to step out of the ‘one-size-fits-all’ national shoe and take charge of their own energy security, carbon emissions and equity of access, and actively engage in developing an energy picture to suit their needs.

Imagine a city where:

• substantial energy supplies are provided by locally available sources (ocean, wind, sun, waste…) by several utilities
• energy efficiency is heavily incentivised (it is much cheaper to save electricity than to make it) and the “polluter pays” principle is applied
• safe and affordable energy sources are available to the poor citizens and industry are encouraged to produce and purchase clean power
• local government buildings are retrofitted for energy saving and staff are incentivised to reduce their energy consumption
• waste is turned into useful energy
• all residential areas glitter with solar water heaters.

Sustainable Energy Africa has worked in partnership with cities to develop progressive sustainable city energy capacity and strategies. A number of cities now have excellent approved strategies with impressive targets – the real struggle now is with implementation. Cities are stuck in a quagmire of risk aversion, legislative and policy constraints and a history of being removed from their own energy production and supply. What is needed to help cities take charge?

Firstly, from within local government, we need political champions to take a proactive stand on their city’s involvement in energy management, and this must be supported by appropriate institutional changes; we also need energy capacity building across all line functions.

Secondly, many cities around the world which are successfully implementing sustainable energy strategies have established energy agencies based on public-private partnerships to drive and coordinate sustainable energy project implementation. These agencies coordinate stakeholders around an Action Plan, raise and manage project funds and carbon trading, support the development of local energy business, support the development of much needed skills training programs, carry out monitoring and evaluation, and provide input to strategy revisions. Most importantly, they have the ability to bring key players together and to make things happen.

The key projects which Southern African cities should be implementing are:
• Information and education of residents and business (experience shows that energy efficiency gains are derived 20% from technology changes and 80% from the education of users);
• Mass solar water heater roll-out projects (would save 20-30% of household energy use which translates into a 5% saving of South Africa’s electricity use), supported by training programs for solar water manufacture and installation;
• Energy efficiency projects in commercial buildings, housing and industry;
• Power purchase agreements for renewable electricity generation supported by active engagement with national governments around tariff subsidies to support renewable power;
• Waste to energy projects;
• Energy efficiency in municipal operations – cities must lead by example.

The benefits of greater energy security, reduced carbon emissions (and the associated economic competitive advantage), and local job creation which these will bring don’t need to be spelled out. The challenge now is for cities to see the opportunities in this crisis and step forward to take their place at the power table.

Sarah Ward ( is an urban planner specialising
in energy and cities. She is the author of The New Energy Book (2008),
published by Sustainable Energy Africa.