SA needs to tighten its energy belt

Leading economists have predicted energy efficiency will be the make-or-break tactic if South Africa is to cut its emissions.

It is one area in which big savings can be achieved, even though renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and new technologies, including carbon capture and storage, will play leading roles in the fight to reduce the country’s carbon footprint.

Energy conservation and efficiency measures are the most cost-effective options in the long run to reduce emissions and decrease dependency on expensive and volatile oil and gas imports, says conservation group WWF in its pocket guide to a new climate deal.

‘There is no one silver bullet to stop dangerous climate change, but energy efficiency is the largest and most affordable solution to avert the current crisis,” says Hans Verolme, director of WWF’s Global Climate Change Programme.

The sums add up. Saving electricity costs R3-million a megawatt and can be as cheap as R1-million a megawatt, whereas the cheapest new coal-fired generating capacity costs R10-million per megawatt.

Energy efficiency is relatively easy to implement if consumers have the correct mind-set and makes up a huge chunk of the overall basket of solutions needed to reduce South Africa’s footprint.

About 79% of the energy in South Africa is supplied through coal and the country’s abundant coal resources have given industries and the public a cheap electric ride.

It is estimated that South Africa’s economy is five to 10 times less carbon efficient than the United States, the United Kingdom or Japan. But the past few years of load-shedding highlighted the possibility of a dark future if South Africans do not save energy. Industry has a huge role to play.

Government research has shown that industry contributes 41% of the total energy used, followed by the transportation sector with 28%. But although there will be economic benefits for business to invest in energy efficiency, it will be expensive in the beginning.

The trick, the WWF says, is to leverage funding for the relatively high capital costs of the most efficient equipment. ‘Energy efficiency generally has a negative cost — it saves more than it costs, but it needs capital outlay,” says Peet du Plooy, trade and investment programme adviser for WWF South Africa.

‘Present fiscal incentives and subsidies make the payback period shorter, but cash-flow constraints mean that energy efficiency would still require finance.” He says that energy efficiency is not just about electricity, which we worry about more because of load-shedding.

‘The most costly energy is liquid fuel and old cars that are wasteful appliances. Most internal combustion engines are around only 20% to 25% efficient, so they waste between three-quarters and four-fifths of the oil that wars are fought over and that strains our trade balance.”

Du Plooy says an interesting recent example on incentivising energy efficiency in vehicles is the ‘cash for clunkers” programme in the US, which pays people to trade in their old cars for more efficient ones.

WWF says, in addition to the energy-related technologies, there is a need to develop and mainstream new materials such as lightweight carbon fibres that have a longer life and have a smaller carbon footprint.

‘Eventually the world needs to base its economic wealth on renewable resources and replace fossil fuel material, cement, steel and aluminium with wood and other biomass-based resources,” the organisation says.

But the key is to make all these new technologies cheaper and spread them around the world. It believes the new green technologies that increase our energy efficiency and the way we consume can be a launch pad for new jobs and new industries, new markets and an overall new green economy.

South Africa’s department of energy is reviewing its energy-efficiency strategy, which began in 2005 and which many commentators believe is out of step with the current day trends.

The 2005 targets aspire to a 12% overall energy savings, to be achieved by 2015. The department hopes that the review of the strategy will help catapult it into becoming South Africa’s energy-efficiency policy.

It is hoped that the eventual policy will clearly chart a way for industry about where to go with energy efficiency and force the laggards to start cleaning up their energy act.

As part of the review the department is busy drawing up regulations for appliance labelling to force lax manufacturers to include energyefficient labelling for their products.

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Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald is a South African environmental reporter, particularly experienced in the investigative field. After 10 years at the Mail & Guardian, she signed on with City Press in 2011. Her investigative environmental features have been recognised with numerous national journalism awards. Her coverage revolves around climate change politics, land reform, polluting mines, and environmental health. The world’s journey to find a deal to address climate change has shaped her career to a great degree. Yolandi attended her first climate change conference in Montreal in 2005. In the last decade, she has been present at seven of the COP’s, including the all-important COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. South Africa’s own addiction to coal in the midst of these talks has featured prominently in her reports.

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