Andreas Späth

(Solar) Power to the People!

2015-04-13 10:40

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Most environmental concerns have a significant middle-class stigma attached to them: to the majority of South Africans the daily struggle of putting food on the family table and the kids through school simply outweighs worries about the ecological fate of the world.

This hierarchy of priorities isn’t misguided. After all it’s the minority of well-off people (myself included) who have the biggest environmental footprints by far. We are the ones who need to change our non-sustainable behaviours, not the impoverished majority.

There is a flip-side to the debate, however, and it centres on the little matter of environmental justice. It’s poor folks whose lives are disproportionately impacted by ecological degradation – they’re paying for the excesses of the wealthy and can’t buy themselves to a greener, healthier future.

One of the things that are known to have the most beneficial impact on the lives of poor people is reliable access to affordable electricity, which results in major knock-on effects from improved health and safety to better outcomes in education and service delivery.

But how do we go about supplying the majority of South Africans with cheap electricity without resorting to Eskom’s planet-wrecking strategy of burning even more dirty coal?

The solution to the conundrum is simple and free, and it rises on the eastern horizon every morning without fail: the power of the sun.

I’d suggest that the good people of Eskom and government read a short paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change recently. In it, a trio of US researchers suggest a way to “rapidly increase access to basic electricity services and directly inform the emerging Sustainable Development Goals for quality of life, while simultaneously driving action towards low-carbon, Earth-sustaining, inclusive energy systems”.

Rarely do academic publications sound this much like socio-political manifestos as well as blueprints for solving real-world problems. “Vast differences in energy access between the rich and the poor are a fundamental injustice”, the authors exclaim.

The answer, they suggest, lies in a combination of grid-based and off-grid “decentralised energy networks” (i.e. not mammoth, planet-frying, coal-fired power plants a la Eskom’s Medupi and Kusile follies), “super-efficient end-use appliances” (i.e. novel devices that use much less energy than conventional counterparts, like LED lights compared to old-fashioned light bulbs, for instance), and “low-cost photovoltaics” (i.e. cheap solar energy panels, along with affordable, high-performance batteries and other new technologies).

It’s the way forward. Now all we’ve got to hope is that the powers that be see the (sun)light.

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