WANTED: Champions for a cleaner, greener city

Solar water heaters, or biofuel-powered public buses, or any other low-carbon solution isn’t going to install itself or switch itself on. Without visionary thinkers to champion the cause, without people to plan for business-unusual and craft the regulations that’ll make it easier to implement, Southern Africa’s cities won’t evolve into the energy-smart, carbon-friendly engine rooms that they must become, writes Leonie Joubert.

View of Cape Town and the Waterfront from Table Mountain

In Cape Town, a group of resource economists was looking at how cities can lower their energy and water use. (Photo by Andreas Tusche, modified, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The folks in charge of running South Africa’s cities need to do some serious ‘blue sky’ thinking if they are going to overcome one of the region’s biggest hurdles to metropoles becoming energy-efficient and low carbon: their funding model.

South Africa’s bigger cities get a chunk of their income from selling electricity and water to consumers. And the way these services are priced, means that municipalities earn more revenue from the large-volume users. They then use this money to cross-subsidise smaller volume-users, who often fall in lower income communities.

It’s a bit Robin Hood in nature: taking from the middle class, who can afford to pay more, to help meet the pressing need for development services to poorer communities.

You can see why no city wanting to keep its coffers plump and its development targets met, would want to urge their wealthier consumers to use less electricity or water. But if a city’s other mandate is to reduce its emissions – and, around the world, 75 percent of emissions come from cities – city managers are in a bit of a double-bind.

This issue surfaces regularly in sustainability circles here. And it came up again last month when economist and private development consultant Kim Walsh, with the South Africa-based firm PDG, addressed a gathering of resource economists in Cape Town. The group was looking at how cities can lower their energy and water use through different demand-side management approaches.

What would a viable alternative funding model be for the city? One, according to Walsh, is where a municipality could earn money from storing and redistributing power, rather than from selling units of power. Basically, earning money from managing the local grid, rather than for the electricity that gets drawn off the grid by consumers. The city utility could buy electricity from households and businesses who generate it independently through, for instance, privately installed and owned small wind turbines or PV units, and charge consumers for storing it on their behalf, and feeding that power back onto the grid when they need it.

But for this to happen, there needs to be some very progressive re-thinking of the status quo, at both municipal and national level, Walsh says. It needs long-term planning, writing appropriate policy, changing the city grid infrastructure, encouraging private sector clean energy rollout, and so on.

This small example illustrates the many challenges faced by Southern Africa’s cities as they grapple with the need to develop in a way that grows the economy and cuts poverty, while at the same time trying to keep in step with global pressure to reduce carbon emissions.

Leading from the front

For Stephen Davis, who works on ICLEI Africa’s Urban Low Emission Development Strategies project in South Africa, ‘bold leadership among municipal staff, and the political will of the mayor’ are at the top of the list of what he argues our cities need to do in order to become ‘energy smart’.

Ultimately, he says, we need to find a ‘sweet spot’ between that, and: good, holistic planning (including energy, spacial planning and transport); guidelines, policies and by-laws to encourage up-take of green technologies, that are sound and easy to implement; municipalities that ‘walk the talk’ in terms of rolling out solutions in their own operations and activities; piloting ‘showcase’ projects that can raise awareness and show the real benefits of energy consumption and efficiency.

At the South African International Renewable Energy Conference, which took place in Cape Town in October 2015, one panel discussion focused on how digital technology can make cities more energy smart and efficient. But these technologies, alone, won’t amount to much, if there aren’t people in cities championing the cause, and making the whole system more suited to tech roll-out.

There’s no silver bullet, in other words, and there’s no single ‘hard technology’ solution that city managers can take off the shelf, buy and switch on, if they want to make their cities energy smart. It needs long-term visionary thinking, planning, and implementing across all city functions, including energy, water and waste, food, buildings, and transport.

In spite of the funding model conundrum mentioned above, Davis says there are some cities that are beginning to take a long-term view on things. They’re seeing that even though pushing for energy efficiency, for instance, means a loss of revenue, it can translate into greater energy security for its citizens.


What Southern African cities can do:

  • Green building guidelines – an example of how municipalities can help drive building development bylaws, which can work hand-in-hand with appropriate spacial development planning which encouraged densification and integration within a city. ‘Spacial planning recognises the efficiency gains through densification,’ says ICLEI Africa’s Stephen Davis. The problem is that the markets – in other words, property prices – have greater influence than municipal planning at the moment, according to Davis. Steve Tshwete local municipality just east of Johannesburg, and KwaDukuza municipalities north of Durban, are working on their guidelines.
  • Smart geyser app – researchers at Stellenbosch University in South Africa recently ran their first field trial on an experimental geyser control device, which is ‘operated via the internet and a smart phone app, and has the potential to cut household water heating by up to 30 percent without users noticing a change to their hot water use habits’ according to the University of Cape Town’s Environmental Policy Research Unit. The device allows you to control the temperature and water flow remotely from anywhere in the world, as long as you have internet access. Municipalities and the private sector (specifically, the plumbing industry) can help roll out this kind of smart tech, once it becomes commercially available.
  • Small-scale embedded generation – cities need to ensure that small renewable tech, such as rooftop photovoltaic panels and the likes, are installed and used ‘safely and according to regulations’, says Davis. Look to the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality in the Eastern Cape, which he says in ‘an early mover’ in this area.
  • Low emission development strategy – KwaDukuza, a ‘secondary city’ just north of Durban, has used the GreenClimateCities methodology to adopt a ‘low emission development strategic framework and action plan’, and has included climate change actions in its Integrated Development Plan, according to Davis.
  • Time-of-use-tariffs – if consumers have to pay more for using peak hour electricity, they’re likely to spread their energy use throughout the day. This will alleviate some of the peak-hour pressure, and help the national utility to manage the country’s grid more effectively. As much as ‘60 percent of residential electricity consumers’ energy needs can be moved to outside of peak time including common appliances such as hot water geysers, pool pumps, heaters, washing machines and dish washers, and even fridges and freezers that are designed for this, according to energy analyst Kevin Kotzen, with local non-profit organisation GreenCape.
  • Landfill gas recovery – eThekwini (Durban) municipality is leading the way in terms of looking into the viability of capturing landfill methane for generating local power.
  • Integrated planning for transport – the City of Johannesburg has its bus rapid transit system, an Ecomobility Festival to promote greener mobility, integrated transport planning, and transit-oriented development. This is a part of its broader Climate change strategic framework and action plan which the kind of holistic and integrated approaches needed for making a city energy smart and climate resilience.


Leonie Joubert is a science writer and journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her work focuses on climate change, energy policy, urban food security, and giving communications support to various academic and civil society organisations.

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