It is an imperative for South Africa to invest in renewable energy, a solution that could be both cost effective and necessary if the government is sincere in its efforts to abate climate change.  The target at present is 15% of electricity generation from renewable sources by 2020, however this target has thus far been addressed by meagre investment commitments.

Government climate policy commitments are not being emulated by current investments, especially not by Eskom, South Africa’s sole energy provider. Eskom has launched a 343 billion rand ($34.40 billion) new power investment program, with includes two 4,800 MW coal-fired power plants due to be operational in 2015 and 2016. Further compromising the government’s commitments to emissions reductions is the fact that CCS discussions are not being actively engaged in by Eskom, especially in line with the economic enormity of these new investments.

Eskom’s promotion of coal as the cheapest and quickest method to add new megawatts to the grid, is primarily to compensate for the acute shortfalls in provision since early 2008.  However an increasing recognition of the carbon externality attached to coal production makes renewable energies the only sustainable option that will ultimately end up saving the government billions of Rand. 

There is consensus on the risks South Africa’s credibility faces if it the country doesn’t implement promised renewable obligations and mandatory emissions reductions.  One of the greatest risks is the imposition of trade barriers for ‘dirty’ exports, especially important as more governments become cognisant of the embodied emissions related to commodity imports and how these may potentially play into national cap and trade schemes.   

The Department of Minerals and Energy draft regulations fall under the Electricity Act 4 of 2006, and are for new generation capacity of all forms of energy by independent power producers, including coal, biodiesel, sun, wind, water and waste. Only nuclear energy is excluded.  Despite the regulations promoting competitive pricing there are conflicts with the energy regulator, NERSA, which has established policies to promote new, clean energy technologies through preferential tariffs.

In contrast to the government regulations, which many feel will undermine renewable energy investments, positive moves are being made towards the adoption of feed-in tariffs for renewable energy.  Following from successful adoption in countries like Germany, feed-in tariffs have proven their position in encouraging investment in renewable.  This is largely due to the absence of involvement by tenders; therefore investment in renewables can come from any investor, who is paid by the national regulator.

Investors and government critics enveloped in ‘Afropessimism’ need to shift discourse away from asinine discussion about coal and ideas such as importing electricity from the world’s largest proposed dam projects in the Congo.  Focus must be on these feed-in tariffs and internal small scale private sector investment to tap into South Africa’s ample renewable reserves such as an 1000MW wind potential. 

However the ideals of sustainable development, decreed in the Constitution and ingrained in policy makers, must feature prominently in renewable policy and propositions.  The counter argument with many proposals such as electrical generation from wind farms is their minimal employment promotion as well as issues of land ownership and an equitable share of profits from electricity production.  These hurdles are not insurmountable they just require interdisciplinary and shrewd policy making that is able to eclipse current political disarray and appreciate the enormity of potential renewable can play in a future ‘green’ South Africa.

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