Towards Energy Sustainability in South Africa

politics ngos environment energy
Friday, 13 April, 2012 - 15:25

In this article the author takes a close look at South Africa’s energy challenges and possible ways in which the country can find sustainable ways of addressing them

Sustainable energy is a current issue that requires urgent attention in South Africa. Energy is essential to communities and for the maximum functionality of the economy. The growing global trends of industrialisation also create a great demand for energy use, hence the necessity to opt for the sustainable route. Addressing the current energy challenges in the country and moving towards clean energy sources will not only ensure that the country meets its energy demands, but enable it to realise the United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 7 of ensuring environmental sustainability by 2015.

Reliance on clean energy sources could save the country from high carbon volumes, environmental hazards and irregular climate patterns. According to the Department of Energy, coal is at present the greatest and most dominant source of energy, producing 65 percent of energy in SA. The renewable energy sources constitute 7.6 percent of the energy. This means that there is still a long way to go in ensuring that more energy is produced from the renewable energy sources and that the usage of coal is reduced, if not stopped, for the benefit of the environment and society at large. As a result, these figures call for the transition of SA’s energy sources.

The sustainability of energy is not only a local crisis but also affects the global community as well. Therefore in addressing and seeking global energy sustainability solutions, the United Nations declared 2012 as the ‘Year of Sustainable Energy for All.’ This theme is more relevant to SA, which developed its national Integrated Energy Plan (IEP), envisaged in the White Paper on Energy Policy of 1998.The IEP serves to evaluate and decide how to meet energy service needs in the most efficient and socially beneficial manner, keeping control of economic costs while also serving national imperatives such as job creation and poverty.

In line with the vision set in the IEP, the country has to provide a platform for different stakeholders, i.e. municipalities, civil society and the private sector - to contribute towards the process of improving the IEP. This is because the latter needs to be updated on an annual basis for it to remain relevant to the country’s energy-related challenges and this according to the department will ensure and encourage a platform to provide feedback into the energy planning process.

The Koeberg nuclear power station is an indication that SA is moving towards other forms of energy apart from coal. The station produces around five percent of the country’s energy. However, Greenpeace Africa warns that nuclear power is a failure, expensive, and dangerous. The organisation further asserts that, “The energy choices being made today will fundamentally affect the country’s ability to combat climate change and create a clean, safe and secure energy future for all South Africans.” Despite this warning, Minister of Energy, Dipuo Peters, told the Investec Power Summit that the  development of a fleet of five or six new nuclear power stations could create around 70 000 new jobs.

Contrary to the Peters announcement, environmental group, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, does not believe that SA should not invest in more nuclear plants because nuclear is neither safe nor economically viable. Following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, the organisation is convinced that nuclear power will inflict future generations with the burden of radioactive waste. In addition, while there is a general feeling that nuclear energy could be sustainable, there is fear that SA does not have the capacity to handle nuclear waste. The challenge is that some of the nuclear waste is dangerous and remains toxic for thousands of years before it decays – and this means we should also ensure that it does not harm both humans and the environment.

The country’s continuous reliance on coal for generating electricity, the ever increasing electricity costs, and the construction of Medupi Power Station in Lephalale and Kusile Power Station in Witbank, are an indication that the country is moving slowly in introducing renewable energy.

In conclusion, whatever the IEP advocates for, SA can learn from the World Wide Fund report, ‘Towards a Green Economy: Envisaging Success at COP17’, which recommends the development and enforcement of strict sustainability criteria that ensures renewable energy is compatible with environmental and the MDGs. The report further notes that renewable energy makes long-term economic sense, adding that, “Switching to renewable energy is not just the best choice. It is our only option. The way the world produces and uses energy today is not sustainable.”

- Phumla Mhlanga is an intern at SANGONeT.

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