It was Freedom Day morning in South Africa when I opened Twitter to catch up on news headlines from the last day.
Because there’s more stuff flowing through my timeline than I could ever hope to read, I glanced to the left of the screen to see the trending topics and pick up on what others were already talking about. Here, I noticed a hashtag that said #OpenUpTheIndustry.
My idealistic mind immediately jumped to the idea of socially-owned renewable energy and how that would open up so many industries for people across Africa.
Wishful thinking because the conversation on that hashtag was about how hard it is to break into the arts and broadcasting industry in South Africa. That’s a pertinent conversation, no doubt, but I decided to go back to the idea of renewable energy empowering communities.
At the moment, South Africa is getting 90% of its energy from coal. Many communities around the country feel the full effect of this fossil fuel addiction through health problems and disappearing water resources. In our country, people live in the shadows of coal plants without ever having any of that electricity themselves.
But throughout the world (Germany is becoming somewhat famous for it), regular people like you and I are starting to become renewable heroes by selling their solar and wind power back into their national grid. Often, communities come together to install a small solar plant that can benefit them all, through clean energy and through earning money.
The appeal of community energy doesn’t just lie in a sense of independence and the chance to earn a few extra Rand though. These schemes can be designed to prioritise the needs of people suffering from energy poverty (that’s a 7 out of 10 people in sub-saharan Africa), and provide training and jobs for locals in a sector widely seen as one of the big growth areas for the coming decades.
That sounds wonderful, when can we start?
Well, we can’t really in South Africa. This blog explains why quite nicely:
“High end users are the ones that will be able to afford more advanced solar systems and ultimately use much less electricity as they sell it back to Eskom.
This will have the unfortunate result that the poorer households will have to pay more for their power and result in a situation where the poor households among us will have to subsidise the rich.
Eskom can’t afford high end users to go off the grid. The reason for this is quite obvious. The less electricity they sell, the less money they will have to upgrade and repair their ailing infrastructure.”
So while we might be able to understand where Eskom stands about feeding renewable energy back into our national grid right now, there’s one harsh truth we still need to face — that national grid isn’t serving so many South Africans. We need to implement more local renewable energy schemes and invest in smart grid technology to lift people out of energy poverty. We need to open up the industry to have a future where all the people in our country can thrive.
How South Africa can do it?
Sandra van Niekerk, a national researcher on people development sums up what our country really needs: “We need a strategy that focuses on a shift towards a publicly owned renewable energy sector, with the shift taking place within a framework of a “just transition”, so that coal miners and other workers who will be affected by the shift are not left out in the cold, but are incorporated into new opportunities.
A shift towards renewable energy, which combines utility-scale plants and small, local plants, holds massive potential for job creation and decent work. We need wage-led growth to be the centre of South Africa’s development strategy.” (Amandla magazine)