SA's poor lose out on solar water heating

Earlier this year, Inter Press Service reported that Cape Town was debating a “first of a kind” by-law that would make solar water heating compulsory for relatively costly new buildings, and certain renovations.

This got us thinking: what of solar water heating for less expensive structures—especially homes being built under the country’s extensive low-cost housing programme? Are any initiatives on the drawing board in this regard?

Since coming to power in 1994, the African National Congress government has spearheaded the building of low-cost, subsidised houses to overcome the homelessness created by apartheid. However, many of these structures are what is termed “core houses”, meaning they lack flooring, geysers and other amenities.

Solar water heaters (SWHs) can be somewhat expensive to install, but this cost is normally recovered within a few years through energy savings that continue long after the units are paid for. The heaters can provide an environmentally friendly source of hot water for low-income-housing residents, and cut their household water heating bills in the long run—good news all round, surely, especially if financial aid were provided to help people get a foot on the SWH ladder.

Not necessarily, it seems.

Low energy usage

“Generally, people living in low-income households don’t spend enough money on energy for water heating,” says Andrew Janisch of Sustainable Energy Africa, a Cape Town-based consultancy. “As a result, the saving from using solar energy for this purpose would not repay the upfront cost of the solar water heater, even with attractive financing options.”

An SWH is made up of a hot water storage tank or geyser, and a roof-mounted panel (called a “collector”) that absorbs the sun’s energy and uses it to heat the tank water.

The cost of SWHs ranges from about R3 400 to R15 000, depending on factors such as the volume of the tank and the square meterage of the collector—and whether a high-pressure water flow from the tank is required for bathroom and kitchen equipment.

“It’s a tough issue,” said a project manager at a Johannesburg-based company that is coordinating an initiative offering incentives for the installation of solar water-heating systems in several houses for the middle- and upper-income brackets.

“We used to look at government-subsidised houses, but it was just too expensive in the greater scheme of things,” the manager says. “Add the cost of a geyser to the R49 000-per-house subsidy, and it would not fit the bill.”

“We’re still taking our lead from our previous minister of minerals and energy: she directed us not to force technologies on to low-income housing,” the manager added. “These things must go on the houses in [the wealthy Johannesburg area of Sandton] to create the aspiration among low-income households, was her message.”

These observations are echoed by Peter Lukey of the chief directorate for air-quality management and climate change in South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.

“We must avoid the ‘ghetto-ification’ of renewable energy. Solar should never be seen as second-class power,” he says. “In South Africa, we need to take into account our vulnerability to climate change, and focus on where we can make the biggest impact. It is not the poor who are polluting with their energy use—it’s middle- and upper-income households.”

As a result, SWH initiatives remain focused on the relatively wealthy and the downright rich. In the case of low earners, “Either the government must pay, and it’s too expensive, or the individual must pay—and it’s too expensive,” says Lukey.

For its part, state energy utility Eskom is largely focused on securing South Africa’s energy supply. Demand for electricity is growing at a brisk 4,5% yearly, and South Africa has a reserve margin of only about “7,5%, which is low by international standards”, says Andrew Etzinger, Eskom’s general manager for investment strategy.

The company has little incentive to fund the provision of solar water heating to a sector of the population that is not among the country’s big energy consumers. “Eskom’s primary business is not poverty alleviation, but securing energy supply to its market,” notes the project manager at the firm involved with SWH incentives.

Pilot projects

Still, as concerns about global warming mount—and the need grows for countries to use energy sources that don’t contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions—even low-cost housing will probably have to be brought into the environmentally friendly fold.

Where low-cost developments have benefited from solar water heating, it has been largely under pilot projects designed to assist local authorities in reaching renewable energy targets, or because environmental impact assessments have stipulated energy-efficient developments.

Cape Town, for example, has set a target of having 10% of all households in the city with SWHs by 2010—this in addition to the proposed by-law.

The Kuyasa Low Income Urban Housing Energy Upgrade Project in Khayelitsha, on the outskirts of Cape Town, is one step towards achieving this. This city-funded project has fitted 10 houses with SWHs, insulated ceilings and compact fluorescent light bulbs, resulting in a 40% reduction in household energy costs.

Cape Town has also secured an additional R30-million from the national Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism and the Western Cape provincial department of housing and local government to install solar water heaters at a further 2 300 low-cost, subsidised houses. Carbon credits will cover about 15% of the expenses for this initiative.

The use of carbon credits occurs in terms of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which established various processes to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, including the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

Under the CDM, industrialised nations can meet targets for greenhouse-gas reductions through investing in initiatives that cut emissions in developing states; this enables the issuing of certified emission reductions—also referred to as carbon credits—which can be traded internationally. One credit is equivalent to a tonne of carbon dioxide, a leading greenhouse gas.

Cosmo City, a new housing development in Johannesburg, has also taken steps towards solar water heating. The project includes 3 000 low-cost homes, of which 170 have been fitted with SWHs at a cost to the city of about R2-million.

Manda Mandavha, a project manager in Johannesburg’s environmental management department, says the SWHs have also been used to raise awareness of climate change among residents. “We would like to install more, but we do not have the funding,” he says.

Further use of carbon credits might, at first glance, seem an ideal way to pull in extra funding. But this idea also stumbles on the fact that energy use by the poor is relatively low—with investment in SWH schemes for low-cost houses offering only small reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. In short, other initiatives offer more bang for the carbon credit buck.

Examples elsewhere

Brazil may point the way for introducing solar water heating on a large scale for low-cost housing.

Earlier this year, the National Agency for Electrical Energy (Aneel), the electricity-sector regulator, stipulated that all electricity utilities in this Latin-American state should contribute 0,5% of their after-tax profits to a fund that Aneel will use to provide solar water heating for low-income families. This has increased the number of households with solar water heaters almost ten-fold.

Sustainable Energy Africa is working with three urban authorities in Gauteng to establish a similar fund.

“Cities are currently facilitating and endorsing solar water-heating roll-out business plans for their middle- and high-income installation programmes,” explains Janisch. “Our plan is that in order for companies to receive this endorsement, certain criteria will have to be met. One of these is that a contribution is made towards a pro-poor fund that will subsidise appropriate energy interventions in low-income households.”

The importance of such schemes notwithstanding, Robin Thomson of Cape Town-based solar water-heating company SunPower believes the pool of people who can afford SWHs may be larger than is generally assumed.

The cost of a low-pressure 100-litre unit with a geyser can be as low as about R200 a month for 24 months—the amount many people spend on cellphone calls, furniture and the like.

“There’s a big difference between low income and no income,” Thomson says.

This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and the International Federation of Environmental Journalists

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