The complexities of the clean energy divide

At the height of power blackouts in South Africa earlier this year households went without electricity for 10 hours a days. The unprecedented spike in outage hours saw the middle class scramble for alternative energy sources to buffer against the failing electricity grid. However, the poorest and the most vulnerable were being left in the dark, writes Ufrieda Ho.

This widening divide of access to alternative clean energy determined by financial means brings into sharp focus the complexity of what a just energy transition entails for a country that has the biggest wealth gap in the world by Gini coefficient index – the widely used statistical formula to measure inequality.

It leaves the bigger question is that of how to close this divide and not be distracted by the good news story of an uptick in adoption of household renewables. Solar panel imports reached peak worth of 3.6 million South African Rand (ZAR) in the first quarter of 2023, compared to ZAR 5.6 billion for the total value of imports in 2022, according to Pretoria-based research institute Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies.

This private household-driven emergency response to mitigate the failings of the state-owned power utility (which registered shortfalls of 4000 to 6000 megawatts in generation capacity in autumn this year) also can’t detract from a decarbonisation agenda, activists and researchers warn. They say keeping the agenda on track means government must get its house in order to stamp out state capture, which has had knock-on effects of technical incompetence, mismanagement and weak governance. Top of mind too is how government will ensure appropriate project implementation and oversight in the management of the USD 8.5 billion pledged over the next five years to jumpstart South Africa’ just energy transition. The grants and loans come from the International Partners Group (IPG), made up of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union.

Thandile Chinyavanhu, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Africa, says it’s critical to define exactly what ‘just’ means. She says a ‘just energy transition means energy transition intersects with social and environmental justice, gender rights and ensures that workers are not shut out of the new green energy economy’.

For Chinyavanhu, the overarching call must be for South Africa to ditch coal. The country relies almost entirely on coal fire-powered stations (constituting 80% of the energy mix).[1] Furthermore, it would be necessary to have decentralised energy models that support micro green energy grids, tiered funding and subsidisation models that lower cost barriers, she says.

In February 2023, Professors David Everatt and Imraan Valodia of the University of Witwatersrand argued for lease-and-own agreements of photo voltaic installation and infrastructure in informal settlements.[2] This could jumpstart a ‘solar revolution’, they posited, adding that ‘solar would provide dwellings with power, also a source of revenue if power is sold back to the grid’ and that this income generator on rooftops could also help people break from social grant dependency.

Bottom up interventions matter because the likes of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ZAR 9 billion worth of incentives for businesses and households to invest in solar, announced in in February 2023,[3] have limited reach, being directed at those with disposable household income or tax break eligibility.

And policy implementation has not kept pace, critics say. As far back as March 2009, the National Energy Regulator of South African (Nersa) approved renewable energy feed-in tariffs (so-called Refit guidelines) to sell energy back to the grid. Load shedding had been implemented one year earlier.

Fast forward 10 years, and uptake of feed-in schemes remain sluggish. Only this year did a large municipality like the City of Cape Town in the Western Cape introduce a feed-in tariff for small-scale embedded generation systems (SSEG) for existing and new solar photovoltaic systems (PV). It will pay 25c per kWh.

The Nelson Mandela Bay municipality in the Eastern Cape set out, in its 2022/2023 tariffs, approval for net-billing tariffs and wheeling tariffs. Net-billing allows customers to generate and export power back to the municipal grid and wheeling tariffs enables SSEGs to use the municipal to export power to their customers.

Christine Culwick Fatti, senior researcher at the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO),[4] says smarter policy like flexible feed-in tariff schemes could help encourage people to choose renewables, but also to stay on the grid.

‘From a just electricity distribution perspective we don’t want individual islands of households or businesses doing their own thing. So people should be incentivised to stay part of the grid but be allowed to sell excess renewable power back to the grid. There could be schemes to donate surplus to a school or an old age home,’ she says, but acknowledges that this would take public trust and good management.

It circles back to governance. Dr Tracy Ledger, who heads the Energy Transition Programme at PARI (Public Affairs Research Institute),[5] is critical that government ‘remains absent’ in effectively addressing the electricity crisis. She says the middle class has been scapegoated for the widening clean energy divide, but they are the people who’ve picked up the slack in a time of crisis. Ledger warns that this narrative is ‘false dichotomy, distraction and is deflection by an incapable state’.

She adds: ‘When the state is missing it’s the poorest and the most vulnerable who feel the pressures most. But even the middle class is being failed because money they are spending on things like solar could be spent on other things that could benefit the economy.’

Ledger’s work advocates for energy poverty to be addressed as part of the country’s just energy transition plan

Free Basic Electricity policy (2003) needs updating to meet changing needs. The policy has long been criticised for being too clunky in registering indigent households or effective in managing funds from National Treasury.[6]

The reality is that a household-level renewables revolution is a win for clean energy, but it’s also a wedge that enlarges the clean energy divide. Leaving more of the country’s poor behind also means the just energy transition agenda slips back in the same direction.


[1] South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research put the energy mix in the country in 2022 at 80% coal, while renewable energy technologies (wind, solar PV and CSP) accounted for 7.3%:






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