With Rio+20 around the corner, the buzz word is sustainable energy. One might wonder why sustainable energy? Are there not bigger problems such as food insecurity, housing or unemployment? Why the fuss about energy and the way it is produced? This is because there is no sustainable development without sustainable energy. The provision of clean energy services (energy produced from renewable energy with no carbon footprint) will determine whether or not Africa can achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
Access to clean energy will reduce dependence on traditional biomass fuels for cooking. People, especially women, who often spend more time collecting firewood, could invest more time into economic and educational activities in order to increase household income and improve the chances of their children going to school, among others. One of the benefits of clean energy could be its potential to reduce extreme poverty. Renewable energy could also contribute to reducing child and maternal mortality, particularly those associated with smoke inhalation. It could enable countries to achieve the universal primary education, promote gender equality and empowerment of women and environmental sustainability.
Taking an example from Sariswa, a small village in India, a biomass plant using waste product from rice husks has employed 50 women between the ages of 25-35. The women take the ash, the by-product from the biomass reactor, and use it to make incense sticks. The project provides better working conditions for these women. It also enables the women to generate income required to feed their families and also pay for their children’s education. In addition, these women have the opportunity to invest some of the money towards their own education.
Energy is never just about energy, but also about the opportunities it creates. However, knowing that energy is required to stimulate development, the next question is how to get the energy to those who do not have access to it? In South Africa, access to energy has been tackled by governments through centralised infrastructure. Looking back in the past 18 years of democracy, SA still has millions of households without access to energy. For rural areas especially, it is difficult to extend the energy grid hence the approximate two million rural households without energy. The question then is - why does the government continue to support coal fired power stations and the centralised schemes, which fail to provide enough electricity. The assumed benefit in using a cheap source of fuel is lost when its use increased carbon emissions, which impact negatively on the environment and contribute towards climate change and loss of life. Unlike other forms of energies, renewable energy is sustainable.
SA is still far from achieving the universal access to energy if the government insists on continuing with plans to build large coal and nuclear plants. The perceived advantage of increased installed capacity does not ensure electricity supply to un-electrified households particularly in the rural areas. One of the reasons for this shortfall is because the transmission and distribution of energy to isolated communities is uneconomical and results in wastage. On one hand, both coal and nuclear plants rely on grid extension in order to increase access. On the other hand, renewable energy infrastructure is set-up close to area of demand. This negates transmissions losses and making it cheaper to provide adequate access to energy. The energy needs of communities should be a priority for the country to develop.
Albert Einstein defines insanity “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It is clear that lack of access to renewable energy cannot be addressed if government thinks in the same way that caused the deficit in the first place. An energy revolution - promoting renewable energy - offers solution that provides a clean energy access and decentralised access. Decentralised energy access in the form of a nationwide network of decentralised energy plants (stand alone and micro grids), is required to ensure energy access for the poorest communities. These can be developed with support from the government, in collaboration with cooperatives, for accelerated rural electrification. Micro-grids could offer reliable, cost competitive electricity services, a viable alternative to the conventional top down approach of extending the grid services.
Renewable energy is tailored for decentralised energy access, not falling into the fallacy of thinking that bigger is better. Decentralised systems could operate in both island mode and grid connected mode, making operation flexible. They could also offer grid support features. This would require in the long-term, policy to facilitate decentralised energy use to improve power supply/state economy and create supportive institutional avenues for micro-grids.
In order to realise sustainable development in SA, we cannot leave behind those who do not have access to energy, particularly when opportunity and technology are available to facilitate their development. Each citizen has the right to access basic services including energy, in line with the constitution.
In commemoration of World Environment Day, Greenpeace urges you to call on government to switch to renewable energy and to improve the chances of achieving the universal access to energy. Click here to join the revolution.
- Ruth Mhlanga is climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Africa. She works on promoting the use of renewable energy in South Africa and the involvement of youth in solutions for climate change.