Less 'wishy washy' needed on renewable energy in SA

South Africa has been “wishy washy” on the issue of renewable energy and needs a more visionary rollout of renewable energy if it hopes to combat climate change.

This is according to Joanne Yawitch, former deputy director general in the department of water and environmental affairs and now chief executive for the National Business Initiative.

Yawitch was speaking at a critical thinking forum on energy diversification hosted by the Mail & Guardian in Rosebank on Tuesday.

She pointed out that South Africa contributes about 2% of world’s greenhouse gas emissions and is among the world’s top 20 emitters, so has a major responsibility to take action to prevent climate change.

“We’re always told that renewable energy can only be an adjunct to mainstream forms of energy and we really need to address that issue,” she said.

Yawitch said that South Africa could learn from the Desertech project, a solar- and wind-energy scheme to be based in North Africa and the Middle East, that could provide up to 15% of Europe’s energy needs in future.

“If that’s the level of ambition they have then we certainly can have a similar level of ambition,” she said.

Gas as an alternative to coal
With the controversy concerning hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in the Karoo, natural gas has been mooted as a possible solution to diversifying the country’s energy mix but climate experts on the panel expressed reservations about gas as an energy source.

Yawitch said natural gas could be a possible solution to diversifying South Africa’s energy mix as it is a cleaner solution than coal.

“But we need to get our gas supply situation sorted out,” she said. “Can we find more gas fields? Could we be importing more gas? It’s not just fracking we should consider.”

But chief executive for WWF South Africa, Dr Morne Du Plessis, warned that natural gas is simply a stop-gap in the struggle to prevent climate change.

“It’s just another form of hydrocarbon The WWF feels we need to be more careful with this because there are a lot of unknowns and gas as a low carbon [alternative] needs to be explored further,” he said.

Greenpeace Africa climate campaigner Melita Steele agreed, saying that one should be careful about creating a dependency on gas rather than on coal, and that it should rather be seen as a “bridging fuel” in the move towards renewable energy.

Eskom International divisional executive Dr Steve Lennon also warned against seeing gas as a quick-fix solution, saying that the volatility of gas prices could quickly destroy the business case for gas. South Africa’s lack of gas infrastructure would also be an obstacle. “You’d want to use it not just for power generation but also for heating in homes and cooking, and that would require hundreds of billions of rands of infrastructure investment before gas could play a role in South Africa,” he said.

Coal and the dirty energy future
Steele argued strongly against coal, saying that South African’s should be made aware of the hidden costs associated with this form of power generation. She said research, commissioned by Greenpeace and undertaken by the University of Pretoria, showed that Eskom’s new coal-fired power plant, Kusile, will cost the country R60-billion per year in hidden costs.

“Coal is far from cheap and it’s a fallacy that because this country has been investing in coal since the 1870s, it’s the best option,” she said, adding that if one “internalises” the costs of Kusile—that is, if you build its environmental impact into the price—South Africans would be paying 2.29 kw/h as opposed to the current 52c kw/h.

Eskom’s six-unit Kusile power plant is currently under construction in the Delmas area of Mpumalanga. Upon completion, it will be one of the largest coal-fired power stations in the world and will provide 4 800MW of power.

Earlier this month, Greenpeace activists invaded the Kusile construction site, scaled a crane and were later arrested by police.

Lennon did not comment on these findings but admitted that South Africa’s reliance on coal power poses a risk to its energy security.

However, moves towards energy diversification needed to be taken slowly, he said.

“You can paint this vision but take it one step at a time,” he said. “Renewables need baseline power. The only technology at the moment that can provide baseline power are coal, nuclear, hydro, and combined cycle gas turbines.”

Lennon said that Greenpeace and Eskom did not disagree on the need for energy diversification but rather on the timing. He suggested 2050 as a reasonable period by which to switch to greener alternatives. But civil society organisations, including Greenpeace and the WWF, believe substantive moves towards renewable energy must be made now to head off dangerous climate change.

Du Plessis argued that diversification of the energy mix alone would not provide South Africa’s answers to climate change.

“If it was a single dimensional problem then, someone would have solved it a long time ago. There are many competing interests that need to be looked at in a trade-off scenario. But in the background we need to look at what needs to be done by 2015 to head of climate change which in turn will slow down our economy,” he said.

Expectations for COP17
Later this month, South Africa will host international delegates at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17), a global negotiation to help agree prevent climate change. Science, politics and economics will intersect at the hotly-contested annual conference.

Steele said it’s important that a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol should bring about a reduction in emissions. She also said she hoped COP17 would raise awareness about climate in the country and encourage people to put pressure on the South African government to commit to change.

Du Plessis said negotiators at COP17 must refocus their attention on the ultimate purpose of the discussions. “We mustn’t fall into trap of incremental change. We need money in the bank of the green climate fund so that developing countries can invest heavily in a low carbon future,” he said, adding that developing countries have a lot of work to do to head off the worst impacts of climate change and to deal with changes that are already in effect.

Lennon agreed that it will be important to maintain the momentum of negotiations going forward. Previous negotiations have been bogged down in political horse-trading and a lack of good faith among the parties.

Yawitch called on government to put greater pressure on countries taking part in the negotiations to step up to the plate.

“The developed world needs to meet a set of obligations,” said Yawitch. “At COP17 South Africa must put pressure on those countries which are trying to move backwards from the commitments that they have; those countries that don’t want a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol; and those that haven’t committed to the Kyoto Protocol like the US.”

She warned that because of the low levels of resilience and development of people in Africa, development in the region is under great threat from water scarcity and failing agricultural economies “in a way that is not dramatic but is very slow and debilitating”.

She added that, as this is an African COP, and African countries are disproportionately affected by climate change, “we need to ask very seriously what we as South Africans want to come out of the COP.”

For the latest COP17 news and special features view our special report.

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live. Read more from Faranaaz Parker

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