Message from NSTF Executive Director

Access to energy in South Africa

How will the poor stay warm?
Winter is starting and with it the ongoing anxiety of how the poor will stay warm in the coming months. Burning wood, coal, and paraffin provides energy for heating and cooking but is unsafe. Typically, the season brings shack fires where whole settlements can be destroyed. People are maimed or killed.

In townships that have been electrified, illegal connections are all too common due to the slow pace of service delivery. A news item ‘Children pay ultimate price of illegal electricity connections’ reports that a 7 year old boy was electrocuted due to an illegal connection. People realise that using electricity in the home is supposed to be cleaner, safer and healthier than the burning of fuels, but don’t necessarily know or acknowledge the deadly hazards of amateur connections. A resident said: “Life without electricity is impossible these days.”

On 16-17 April, the NSTF hosted a thought-provoking discussion forum on Sustainable Energy for All – see the Media Release. Our discussions focused mainly on government policy, as well as research and innovation. Government policy, in this regard, is noble and idealistic. The research is world-class and forward looking – and gives rise to ground-breaking innovations.

Further focus on access to energy
The Discussion Forum presentations were inspiring and mostly at a high level (as expected, and correctly so). However, there is so much more to be discussed around the challenges and possible solutions for providing energy access to everyone in South Africa. I want to focus on energy access aspects that did feature in the presentations.

Converting waste to energy
Prof Diane Hildebrand of UNISA was one of the presenters. She is leading research and innovation to improve the lives of the poorest in South Africa and in developing countries. Prof Hildebrand is the Director of IDEAS (Institute for the Development of Energy for African Sustainability). The institute’s focus is on the use of “biomass, garbage and waste from industry and agriculture, as feedstocks to produce electricity and fuel. They are developing small scale, simple, robust equipment such as gasifiers and Fischer Tropsch systems to utilise these feedstocks”. (See the Speakers Biographies.)

Basic household energy needs can be provided by such equipment, using the waste from one cow as well as household members. This method bodes well for people of simple means in rural areas. I’m unsure how socially acceptable this technology will be for urbanised people? Perhaps if the equipment could be commercialised and aggressively marketed to environmentally aware middle-class households, its acceptability might grow. Developing wide-ranging social acceptability is being investigated by the IDEAS team.

Energy solutions require leadership
Mr Barry MacColl, currently at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), focused on electrification efficiency. It’s agreed that increasing the level of energy efficiency alone has the potential to improve both environmental sustainability and access to energy. He pointed out that South Africa has to find its own energy solutions, taking into account its own circumstances and developmental needs. He says that addressing energy poverty in Southern Africa requires the following: leadership, funding, a master plan, expertise, technology, project management, and community involvement. Mr MacColl emphasised the need for an ‘Energy CODESA’ in South Africa to reach consensus and make progress on the provision of sustainable energy for all.

To summarise
* Decentralising sources of electricity is one of the viable approaches to providing safe and adequate access to communities that are far from the cities. Research and innovation in such technologies are essential. Government support would facilitate the rollout of these solutions for widespread improvement of people’s lives.

*  Government should not only focus on developing new sources of energy but should get advice on and implement technology that improves energy efficiencies on a large scale. That might be the most cost-effective investment in the country’s energy future.

*  South Africa must find its own solutions adapted to local conditions and needs.

*  We should keep the conversation going and find ways to involve and consult communities.

To delve deeper into energy provision and access issues, I suspect we have to wait for our planned discussions on the Fourth Industrial Revolution later this year, and the Smart Cities discussion in 2019. Hopefully technological innovation will allow South Africa (and Africa) to ‘leapfrog’ the typical developmental phases and improve people’s lives faster.