Planning for our future power needs

2013-07-12 00:00

PEOPLE are not great at joining the dots between cause and effect, but there is fairly widespread agreement that planning ahead is wise.

Planning ahead has been part of our DNA for as long as thought has existed. But what happens to our planning when uncertainty rules?

In our current context of uncertainty, planning needs to be a whole lot more nimble.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe was quoted in The Witness (“SA could lead with its natural resources”, June 25) as saying that solar power is one of the options to ensure a future electricity supply for South Africa.

However, the government’s Integrated Resource Plan of 2010 (IRP2010) vastly underestimates the potential of sustainable energy sources. It is also based on outdated forecasts of electricity demand, and fails to take into account how best to create jobs and empower rural communities. It does not adequately respond to the challenges we face.

We have since heard that the Medupi coal-fired power station will be further delayed, while costs are escalating fast. It is time for a less rigid, more visionary approach.

The Electricity Governance Initiative of South Africa (EGI-SA), a coalition of national civil-society organisations, has produced a report with concrete proposals for electricity planning in a context of uncertainty — a context with an impact on everyone from energy-guzzling factories, down to you and me and our home appliances.

This peer-reviewed document has been prepared as a response to the government’s IRP2010, which sets out electricity investment planning to 2050, and is due for review later this year.

The Smart researchers used a robust modelling tool produced by the Energy Research Centre at UCT to work out how South Africa’s future electricity needs might be met at the lowest possible cost to the consumer, and in a way that creates the most jobs. The report recognises the significant pressures on local planners, who are tasked with ensuring a reliable electricity supply while social welfare, employment, education, health and environmental pressures continue to grow.

Unrestricted access to cheap coal has helped grow the South African economy, albeit for the greatest benefit of only part of the population. But burning fossil fuels has a long-term payback — it compromises ecosystems.

The move to a smarter electricity supply starts with recognition of the relationship between people and the boundaries of the planet.

Mature economies are decoupling their development from their natural resource use. They do the same with less. Fortunately in South Africa, even though we are a developing country, we have a track record of making a plan when our backs are against the wall.

What are South Africa’s assets in this regard?

• Citizens who recognise their shared humanity and understand the mammoth task required to undo the legacy of apartheid, including a centralised and outdated grid supply model for electricity.

• World class professionals who could work elsewhere but choose to stay in the country.

• Abundant wind and many hours of sunshine during most of the year.

• Women and men who are young enough to adapt their skills portfolios.

• Large numbers of young people hungry for employment.

The Smart report finds that concentrated solar power provides 5,9 jobs per MW installed compared to just 0,5 provided by nuclear power. The IRP2010 job-years potential is 360 000 until 2030. The Smart modelling found that with a combination of energy-efficiency and renewable energy, 530 000 job years can be created. Many of these jobs could be created by small businesses in marginalised geographical regions, contributing to rural economies.

Why would we build nuclear and coal power plants that only employ large numbers of people during the construction phase and then keep on a fraction after the last bulldozers rumble off? Why are we not planning so that our electricity supply choices translate to the growth of our renewable energy manufacturing industry?

In short, why would we proceed with electricity planning that is out of date and no longer serves our immediate or future needs?

That doesn’t sound like the kind of thing people who know how to make a plan would do. It’s time to plan a little smarter.

• Brenda Martin is the founding director of Project 90 by 2030 — a national NGO focused on Energy research, policy and implementation — and editor of the Smart electricity planning report.

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