A Comprehensive Strategy Is Needed for Household Energy Safety

South Africa (SA) lacks a comprehensive, integrated household energy strategy and policy, which could be one of the major indirect reasons inhibiting development and perpetuating poverty.

The country’s residential energy mix includes electricity, liquid petroleum gas, coal, paraffin, biomass and solar energy. However, policy and programmes to date have largely focused on electricity. This means that many households are still exposed to countless energy safety risks that are not being addressed.

Household energy-related injuries, such as fires and paraffin ingestions, are a serious problem in SA; causing emotional, financial and physical damage to many communities, particularly in low-income areas. The injury surveillance system of the Paraffin Safety Association of South Africa (PASASA) has found that children under five are most likely to swallow or get burnt by paraffin. This also affects SA’s overburdened healthcare system. A report commissioned by the National Treasury and the then Department of Minerals and Energy states that the cost of deaths and injuries due to paraffin use, creates a burden 50 times higher than the annual turnover in paraffin sales. This presents a significant challenge to the country, yet national energy policies and programmes do not directly address the safety risks of SA’s current energy mix.

Systemic issues in the distribution and use of energy in the household have also exacerbated the problem. Lack of space in low-income housing and informal settlements means that toxic materials are not always safely stored, and it is difficult to keep a safe distance from heaters and stoves. Paraffin appliances and fuel are generally sold informally through micro-enterprises and spaza shops. Paraffin is often dangerously contained in juice, milk and beverage containers. There are only two licensed legal stoves sold in SA at the moment and unfortunately, the majority of households surveyed use cheap, illegal and unsafe stoves. Having national standards and regulations for paraffin-fuelled appliances has not translated into increased safety within households.

In its chapter on economic infrastructure, the National Development Plan focuses on electricity, but energy infrastructure should not be limited to electrification only. In response to the National Development Plan’s call to reduce inequality and eliminate poverty by 2030, PASASA and the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI) propose a new integrated household energy strategy and policy that takes into account the diversity of the country’s energy mix. This can help reduce energy poverty, improve affordability, reduce the strain on the national electricity grid, address the impacts of climate change, improve safety and very importantly, create much-needed jobs in the South African economy.

Universal access to modern energy services is key to many of the plan’s objectives, including growing the economy, improving quality of life, reducing poverty, ensuring the health and safety of all citizens, and the provision of adequate services and infrastructure.

It is therefore crucial that our approach to energy recognises that many fuels play an important role in South African households. Despite the electrification programmes’ huge success, it is estimated that approximately 3.4 million households or 25 percent of all households (1/3 informal households and 2/3 formal households), still do not have access to electricity. People living in backyards, deep rural areas and in informal settlements on unproclaimed land, cannot benefit from the electrification programme. A PASASA survey indicates that 60 percent of residents, mainly in informal settlements, do not have access to, and cannot afford to pay for electricity. A large number of electrified and non-electrified, low-income households use paraffin mainly for their thermal needs due to its affordability, portability and availability.

The majority of households (or 2/3 of households) surveyed, had a monthly income of less than R1 000. Fifty seven percent of households surveyed used paraffin for cooking and 23 percent used electricity for cooking. When looking at heating, 46 percent of households surveyed used paraffin and 18 percent used electricity, with a similar percentage using wood. Candles remain a common source of lighting in resource poor communities. Poor households practice multiple fuel use for various reasons, particularly affordability and cultural or behavioural preferences. Low-income households spend up to 26 percent of their monthly income on their household energy needs. We believe this should inform future policy and planning, along with a much broader definition of modern energy services. The improper use of paraffin and other energy supplies will have serious health and safety impacts on our nation, unless appropriate programmes are put in place.

We therefore propose a household energy safety policy that encourages competition and innovation in the local manufacturing of paraffin appliances, which will ultimately prevent the use of illegal and unsafe appliances. Government could stimulate and subsidise the development of relevant technology, which would also create jobs. Financing mechanisms should be made available to assist poor households to buy safe, energy efficient and compliant appliances.

Public awareness programmes similar in magnitude to the current Eskom-driven 49m Campaign to encourage consumers to use less electricity are needed to educate consumers about their rights, energy risks and how to prevent injuries. Paraffin is often perceived as dangerous, inefficient and dirty, but this is largely due to the unsuitable way it is used in SA. Consumers should be able to easily identify and report unsafe stoves.

Houses need to be constructed with energy efficiency and safety in mind. Low-income housing generally does not provide proper ventilation, space, counters, lighting and insulation. The Department of Human Settlements and other relevant agencies should work together to develop low-cost homes that are safer and more energy efficient, particularly in informal settlements where there is exponential growth.

It is crucial that unsafe products, especially appliances, do not reach the South African market. To achieve this, the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications needs sufficient funding to enforce regulations. Safer appliances will reduce injuries, climate-change impacts and energy demand, easing pressure on the national electricity grid.

Household energy safety and efficiency should be a national priority. Sadly, this is not the case. We believe there is a need for a comprehensive framework to support current energy policies, addressing the key issues of access, affordability, efficiency, safety, health, supply, availability and the environment.

The framework’s success will require and depend on the cooperation and collaboration between various national departments, civil society organisations, research institutes and regulators. We will continue to work closely with government and various organisations to address energy provision, security, safety and supply.

The demand for access to safe, affordable household energy has increasingly become part of service delivery protests. The focus needs to shift from electrification at all costs, to include all of SA’s energy carriers. We cannot address the country’s energy issues properly, until we acknowledge our diverse energy mix. Only then can improvements in household energy safety and efficiency be made. This will prevent poverty proliferation and contribute to true growth in South Africa. The development of an integrated household energy strategy and policy should be one of the major challenges facing the Department of Energy right now.

- Patrick Kulati is managing director at the Paraffin Safety Association of South Africa and Barry Bredenkamp is senior Manager: Energy Efficiency at South African National Energy Development Institute


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