Energy is central to any household. We need it for transport, radio and TV, cooking, heating and lighting. Energy does not have to come in the form of electricity, but for most of us, electricity is the easiest, most flexible, cleanest and cheapest form of energy in the home – and we rely on our municipalities to provide it.
But in South Africa, about 90% of our electricity is generated by burning dirty coal. So the convenience of electricity comes with serious problems. Air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are obvious ones. Other impacts from mining and burning coal include water pollution, the destruction of natural habitat and the health and safety of mineworkers.
We all know we should be moving towards a low-carbon economy
based on renewable energy.
But what do the politicians say?
Almost all of political parties in South Africa say that they see the transition to renewable energy as fundamental to a sustainable future. But how does this translate into reality at the local level?
A situation where there are a photovoltaic (PV) panel and solar water heater on every roof in the country is technically possible and financially feasible. Not only would this obviate the need for more dirty coal-fired energy and horrendously expensive nuclear power-stations, but it would also place household energy security firmly in the hands of the householder. However, it is not clear that any of the major parties are willing to give citizens this much control over their own lives!
While the African National Congress (ANC) government has overseen the addition of over 4 000 MW of renewable energy capacity in less than four years, their priority is still to support large-scale installations, rather than “people’s power” – and sadly, any carbon-emission advantage gained by the new renewable stations will be wiped out when the two new coal-fired stations, Medupi and Khusile (9 500 MW in total) come on line.
The ANC’s liking for coal is shared by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Unfortunately the citizens of Mpumalanga Highveld have to pay with their health – they live in an area which has amongst the poorest air quality in the world.
A few years ago, Eskom’s load-shedding saw householders rushing to buy off-the-shelf renewable technologies, such as PV panels and solar water heaters, but few local authorities promoted, enforced or offered incentives for renewable energy installation.
For example, one incentive would be if residents were able to sell their spare solar electricity back into the municipal grid. But this is constrained by municipal by-laws and Eskom’s monopoly, in turn supported by government (ie. tax-payer) bailouts.
One of the smaller parties, the United Democratic Movement (UDM), wants to promote and incorporate all viable options for electricity generation at a household or community scale. Municipalities argue that if they encourage households to be more efficient or generate their own electricity they face a drop in tariff income. The UDM leader, Holomisa, however points out that as electricity is the lifeblood of an economically active society, any loss of revenue to municipalities will be more than offset by the rise in economically active communities.
Some questions for your newly elected councillor:
- Do you see moving to a low-carbon economy based on renewable energy as fundamental to our city’s future? How do you see this happening?
- Do you think that municipalities have a responsibility to encourage households to become more energy efficient or generate their own electricity?
- Do you think that Eskom’s monopoly on energy generation is preventing municipalities from promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions?
- Are you afraid that by encouraging households to be more energy efficient or to generate their own electricity, the municipality will face a drop in tariff income? Is there a creative solution to this problem?