Related Links

Related Stories


Renewables in Africa (part 2)

Dieter Holm

The energy scene in Southern Africa is dominated by South Africa. While its coal-based electricity used to be cheap and reliable by world standards, the South African state utility recently ran out of reserve capacity – with blackouts resulting. In the second part of an article for Renewable Energy Focus, Dieter Holm, long-serving member of the International Solar Energy Society (ISES), reports on renewed awareness of energy efficiency and renewable energy in South Africa.

While South Africa has abundant renewable energy resources, it is still reliant on finite and polluting local coal and imported oil. The case for a concerted move to sustainable development through renewable energy is compelling. The recent blackouts caused major economic setbacks in the region, creating a renewed awareness of energy efficiency and renewable energy – comparable to the panic during the 1970s.

Prior government energy modelling underestimated and neglected renewable energy, in part because of short planning horizons. More balanced long-term scenarios were developed by civil society, showing 50% renewable energy power by 2050 to be realistic and in line with international imperatives and current EU actions.

Currently renewable energy provides hydropower (642 MW), biomass (20 MW) and wind (23 MW). Renewable energies are already the most cost-effective strategy for most decentralised rural energisation. At present the residential sector alone is responsible for 35% of the peak demand crisis, and its share is growing.

Solar water heating can realistically displace 43,000 GWh/a by 2021. If only 5% of on-grid households installed a 2 kW photovoltaic (PV) system, this could contribute 800 MW, generating 1300 GWh/a. Both renewable technologies are applicable at point of use, with considerable savings in distribution infrastructure.

Given the right incentives, PV on consumers' premises allows for a very wide base of installers, financiers and project implementers to make a large-scale cumulative contribution. South Africa has better resource levels than north Africa, where only a small portion of the Sahara could provide all the EU with solar thermal generated power.

Africa is endowed with 95% of the world's best winter sunshine area, receiving more than 6.5 kWh/m2.d; Southern Africa's contribution to this is 59%. Abundant renewable energy resources and technologies are available in Southern Africa. A primary objection to the widespread use of renewable energies is given as their intermittency: the mantra is that they are not 'dispatchable'.

In fact, some renewable energy technologies are constant (hydro, wave, tidal current, bioenergy), while others can be combined for predictable supply through geographical and technological mixes (hybrid systems, Green Tower, wind). Some are coincident with demand (solar cooling, solar water pumping, some wind resources) and some have their own integral energy storage systems (solar water heating, solar passive building design, biogas). The remainder can be covered by energy storage systems (pumped storage, compression, molten salts, hydrogen, kinetic energy and – significantly – the storage capacity of the total future electric motor fleet through vehicle to grid (V2G). Intermittency (dispatchability) is not a disqualifying issue for renewables in South Africa.

Current renewable energy contributions with total grid electricity data provided for comparison only (updated from Banks & Schaeffler, 2006)

  Existing mixed-grid production Hydropower SWH (2005) PV (2002) Wind Biomass Biomass for power generation
Capacity (MW) 39,493 661 652 12.1 29 (including 23 MW at boreholes) Not applicable 200
Annual production (GWh) 207,000 1057 1377 21 60 106,0001 700
Reference NER 2002

Barta 2002

DME energy balance, 2001

Holm, 2005, p.30 Cawood & Morris, 2002, p.27 Tripod & Oelsner, 2003 in World Bank 2004 WEC, 2003, p.39 Schaeffler 2008 correspondence and CaBEERE 2004

1. Note: expression of biomass in GWh does not imply 100% conversion to useful energy, it shows the inherent energy of fuel used.

Distortion of the energy market

The energy market is distorted in Southern Africa, by the omission of externalities, as well as protected monopolies and subsidies. Renewable energy prices are declining while finite fossil fuel prices are rising (oil, coal, uranium). Some renewables (solar water heating, solar passive buildings, hydro, landfill gas) are already cheaper than building new generating capacity, while others (wind, CSP) will be cheaper long before the end of life of fossil power stations currently being built. The economic, social and environmental cost of delaying massive deployment of renewables is higher than the current capital cost differential.

The unique characteristics of renewable energy technologies are that they use, by definition, sustainable energies, can be implemented relatively quickly, come in modular units, support distributed generation, offer significantly more work opportunities and have a much lower environmental impact than stock energy options, including achieving the lowest CO2 emissions. Most are suited for co-generation, are geographically dispersed, and have a modest footprint, while some can be placed on the roofs of existing and new buildings.

The main constraints for renewable energies are neither resource availability nor techno-economics but a limited and outdated mindset focussed on the supply-side, partial energy costing, low (indirectly subsidised) energy prices and short-term thinking favouring low initial costs. The dominance of state-controlled power monopolies and the influence of vested interests (particularly in the minerals sector) on key stakeholders are exacerbated by a lack of awareness and informed leadership as well as a real shortage of qualified and dedicated person power. Therefore, the most important constraint is not money, men, machines, materials or management, but motivation, or inspired political will.

An effective action framework

An effective action framework for renewable energy requires a long-term commitment, challenging targets, along with consistent and predictable market conditions. It has long been internationally recognised that addressing skewed markets and subsidies requires an enabling framework with measures that are long, loud and legal. Good intentions are not good enough. The internationally proven feed-in-tariff stands out as such a key mechanism, but a suite of supporting interventions is required.

Now that the United Kingdom has done a renewable energy policy volte-face by adopting the feed-in tariff, it is expected that the English-speaking world will belatedly follow suit. In southern Africa, South Africa has made a timid and ill-advised proposal, which is expected to be improved by mid-year. After this a dramatic increase in renewable energy deployment is expected in southern Africa, leading to the establishment of local industries that will create new sustainable jobs in a time of economic recession. At the same time the environment will be protected and the power shortage will be addressed permanently.

Many of the above items will be addressed at the ISES Solar World Congress, hosted by the Sustainable Energy Society of Southern Africa (SESSA) from 11 to 14 October 2009 in Johannesburg. SESSA is the local national section of the International Solar Energy Society (ISES).

About the author
Dieter Holm, author of Energy Conservation in Hot Climates, is with ISES & SESSA, and has included material from the Renewable Energy Briefing Paper 2008 by Holm, D, Banks, D, Schäffler, J, Worthington, R, and Afrane-Okese, Y. This material was freely used and is hereby acknowledged.



Share this article

More services


This article is featured in:
Bioenergy  •  Energy storage including Fuel cells  •  Other marine energy and hydropower  •  Photovoltaics (PV)  •  Solar electricity  •  Solar heating and cooling  •  Wave and tidal energy  •  Wind power



Ngela said

16 June 2009

Note: The majority of comments posted are created by members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those Elsevier Ltd. We are not responsible for any content posted by members of the public or content of any third party sites that are accessible through this site. Any links to third party websites from this website do not amount to any endorsement of that site by the Elsevier Ltd and any use of that site by you is at your own risk. For further information, please refer to our Terms & Conditions.