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issue 3, May - June 2000



Newsletter index

Sustainability and Renewable Energy

There is widespread consensus amongst the world’s leading energy policy analysis organizations that current energy use practices are not sustainable, and that these will have to change drastically in the near future. The principal message from the last World Energy Council meeting stated that "we cannot carry on using energy in the ways that we currently do", that the next 30 years are ones of managing energy transition, and that this must start now (WEC 1994). One of the main concerns is the major contribution of carbon emissions from energy use towards global warming. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA 1998), world energy demand is projected to grow by 66% between 1995 and 2020, with fossil fuels providing 95% of this increase, and CO2 emissions growing by 69%. Most increases in carbon emissions (78%) are predicted to come from developing countries in future.

Given the above, it seems inevitable that all countries, including developing nations, will come under increasing pressure to shift away from high carbon fuels and increase energy efficiency substantially. Amongst the policy shifts identified by the UNDP as being essential for sustainability are, increased attention to energy efficiency and market penetration of sustainable energy technologies (UNDP 1997). Renewable forms of energy have a major role to play in moving to sustainability, and thus represent a huge future potential market.

So it seems that all informed people know what needs to be done, yet there is often little evidence of a fundamental shift within national energy planning. Why? Some of the main barriers to moving towards sustainability at a sensible pace (and thus increased use of renewable energies) are:

  • Many decision-makers are not well informed of the problems, nor of the potential courses of action. Which renewable energy options are viable now? Which are viable in the longer-term? What are the constraints to increased adoption of renewable energies?
  • Economic decision-making tools typically have a relatively short time horizon (20 years), and thus often do not capture longer-term degradation and other environmental problems, which are in any case difficult to quantify.
  • Energy production-related health and environmental costs (called ‘externality’ costs) are not currently included in energy costs, but are carried by other sectors of society (such as health care) or by future generations. For instance, the costs of global warming are expected to be huge internationally, but probably won’t be incurred in the lifetime of those who have shaped an economy which set the problem in motion.
  • Renewable energy prices are relatively high and so the market is small. This applies particularly to capital costs (operation and maintenance costs are often low) – pointing to the need for suitable financing to increase the affordability of renewable energies, as well as the need for greater allocation of resources for research and development (R&D) to reduce technology costs. With increased affordability, markets increase and so production volumes increase, which in turn further reduces costs.
  • Supply, distribution and back-up systems for renewable energy technologies are typically underdeveloped due to the small market.
  • The competing forces of short to medium term economic growth versus sustainability in most cases leads to the deprioritisation of sustainability concerns. This is exacerbated by the often short-term interests of politicians. The following extract from Lenssen and Flavin (1996) concerning reduction of carbon emissions is of relevance:

‘Although many third-world officials fear that carbon dioxide limits could choke off their economic growth, the greater risk would come in failing to use the more efficient, less polluting energy technologies that industrial nations are beginning to adopt. Continuing to pursue an inefficient oil and coal based future would saddle developing countries with a grim combination of uncompetitive technologies and economically draining environmental cleanup bills. Indeed, the Soviet Union already tried this path to economic development, and failed.

Still, there is reason for optimism. When countries industrialise later – as Germany and Japan did in the 1950s and 1960s – they generally leapfrog to a higher, more efficient level of technology. Thus it is possible that by 2025, countries such as Brazil or Russia could be more energy efficient than Japan. And it would not be surprising that by mid-century China has a more ambitious solar hydrogen system than Europe does. The recent opening of many developing country energy systems to foreign investment and the elimination of national monopolies will tend to hasten their catching up with the richer nations. In the long run, moving away from dependence on oil and coal and pursuing a more sustainable energy future is key to the development process of third world countries.’

Solar energy for both heating and electricity generation, wind electricity generation, hydroelectric power and biomass are all considered renewable forms of energy (there are others with less immediate relevance to Africa such as wave energy and ocean thermal energy conversion). Large-scale hydroelectric power is generally well known and utilized, and internationally accounts for the bulk of energy officially classified as renewable. Biomass could be included amongst non-sustainable energy forms because of the associated emissions and the ease with which the resource may be over-harvested in many areas. This leaves solar and wind as the renewable energy sources having the most immediate relevance to Africa. Both are used internationally on both a small-scale as stand-alone energy sources, as well being used as larger grid connected generation plants. At present, no large scale solar or wind generating plant is operational in Southern Africa, but two potential wind plants in Namibia and South Africa respectively are currently being investigated, and the potential for large-scale solar thermal power generation exists in the areas surrounding the Kalahari desert, which has some of the most favourable solar radiation conditions in the world. On a smaller scale, solar water heaters and housing developments incorporating passive solar and energy efficient design are immediately economically viable applications for renewable energies which have clear financial returns and potentially significant implications for national energy profiles. Widespread application of these two options would usually delay the need for investment in new electricity generation plants.

Internationally renewable energies are gaining ground rather slowly. Amongst the most promising developments are the large amounts of money invested by some oil companies in solar photovoltaic and wind technology; the application of a tax to support renewable energy projects in some states of the USA, and the strong growth of wind energy in Western Europe. In spite of these developments, overall projections indicate that renewable energy (including hydro) share in total energy consumption is expected to remain relatively static at around 8% until the year 2020 (EIA 1999). In Africa South of the Sahara, renewable energy projects other than large-hydro sites are still considered small fry which "don’t even make a bump on national utilities demand forecast curves", and thus focus on them is easily sidelined in national planning. This reflects a lack of foresight regarding the sustainability problems already obvious to almost all leading energy analysts. More responsible behaviour can be promoted partly by ensuring key decision-makers are adequately informed and by institutionalising rational long-term integrated planning processes, which few countries do effectively. At the end of the day there is no option but to include sustainability as a major driver for development in the energy sector. We may have a choice around whether we do this sooner or later, but given the long lead times of energy projects, and given the projections around issues such as energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, we don’t seem to have much choice here either.

Mark Borchers
Energy Development Group
South Africa



EIA 1999, International Energy Outlook 1999, Energy Information Administration, Department of Energy, USA.

IEA, 1998, World Energy Prospects to 2020, paper prepared for G8 Ministers meeting, Moscow, IEA, Paris.

Lenssen N. and Flavin C., 1996, Sustainable energy for tomorrow’s world, In Energy Policy, Vol 24, No 9.

UNDP, 1997, Energy after Rio: prospects and challenges, UNDP, New York.

WEC, 1994, Energy for Tomorrow’s World, World Energy Council, London.

Environmental Degradation Threatens Democracy

The arrival of the year 2000, the new millennium – was greeted with much pomp and ceremony. This was also the case in the environmental justice and human rights sector. To this end, South African civil society organisations joined forces under the banner of groundWork to advocate with organisations in more than 180 countries for clean energy production on 22 April 2000, the thirtieth anniversary of Earth day. In South Africa the theme was succinctly conceptualised with the slogan "Clean Energy is our Constitutional Right."

The fact that we have relatively cheap electricity and petrol in South Africa does not mean that we are meeting our human rights commitments in our Bill of Rights. Giving South Africans cheap energy and petrol comes at a price – namely highly polluting production methods using cheap crude oil and coal, resulting in hundreds of tonnes of poisonous chemicals being emitted into our atmosphere every day. Our substandard method of energy production destroys our environment and, most importantly, impacts negatively on the people who live in these production zones saturated with pollution.

Oil refineries emit hundreds of chemicals everyday. These include metals such as lead, which make it hard for children to learn. They also include very small dust particles called PM10 that get deep into our lungs and harm our ability to breathe. Finally, refineries emit many harmful gases like sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NO2), carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, dioxins, hydrogen fluoride, chlorine, benzene and others.

Due to our poor environmental standards and practices, South Africa is the sixteenth largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world. This is directly related to our chosen dependence on cheap energy. This global problem, however, is first and foremost a local problem that affects hundreds of thousands of South Africans in a devastatingly negative manner.

The Constitution

South Africa’s constitution is recognised as one of the most progressive in the world. Section 24 of our Bill of Rights states that: "Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being." This is indeed a noble statement. However, if the mechanisms for the realisation of this right are not put in place, this ends up becoming nothing more than an empty promise for the many South Africans who live adjacent to our various oil refineries, ESKOM Power plants and other polluting industries.

Non-enforceable and outdated legislation

In the preamble of the overarching National Environmental Management Act of 1998 (NEMA) it is stated "that the law should facilitate the enforcement of environmental laws by civil society." Both in the Preamble and in various provisions of the NEMA there is a frank admission that government will not do the job of investigating, identifying or prosecuting violations of environmental laws. Instead of creating governmental capacity to implement an environmental management system, the NEMA relies overwhelmingly upon self-regulation by polluters and private enforcement by civil society. In the absence of a governmental inspectorate, a vigilant and informed civil society is the primary bulwark against environmental degradation and harm to human health. Thus there is an urgent need for civil society to develop the capacity to step into this new, participatory role of managing the environment and monitoring and enforcing environmental laws.

Government’s failure to take the lead in regulating and monitoring the environment has resulted in a dearth of legally enforceable anti-pollution standards. Oil refineries (and other polluting industries) are still governed by the out-dated, 35-year old Air Pollution Prevention Act of 1965. In civil society’s endeavours to participate in environmental governance around oil refineries, there are no enforceable standards that civil society can use to monitor the oil refinery sector.

Although the South African Petroleum Industrial Association (SAPIA) claims in its 2000 annual report that the SA oil industries have voluntarily implemented anti-pollution standards and codes of conduct over the past 25 years, it is a known fact that refinery pollution over the same period has increased.

Emissions from petrochemical refineries

Since 1995, civil society in South Africa has established that whereas some refineries elsewhere in the world only emit two tons of sulphur dioxide a day, the South African refineries are permitted to emit up to 82 tons per day, a horrifying disparity. All our refineries are owned by multinational organisations that operate in other countries with far more stringent environmental standards than South Africa.

In May 2000, through a joint initiative between groundWork, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and the South African Exchange Programme on Environmental Justice (SAEPEJ), both based in the USA, local oil refinery communities were provided with the means of assessing the polluted air that they breathe. Local communities were taught how to take air samples using the very simple USA government–approved bucket system of air sampling. The bucket air sampling system costs a fraction of the price of normal air sample equipment and has been used extensively in the United States to assist the government in implementing legislation.

To date, some alarming figures have emerged from air samples taken in South Durban and Sasolburg. Tests taken of these air samples showed a "toxic soup" of a variety of chemicals including benzene, a carcinogen known to cause leukaemia as well as being a development retardant. Communities around refineries in Durban, Cape Town and Sasolburg were alarmed to hear of the hundreds of chemicals that are emitted by refineries, over which our South African legislation currently has no control.

Facing the challenge of the law and democracy

In a democracy, civil society has to be pro-active and supportive of the policy and legislation that has been developed. Communities have finally gained a sense of control over their environment through the air-sampling bucket. For years in South Africa there has been unconstructive debate between the oil industry and communities with regards to air pollution. Although industry was aware of the pollution it caused, both the industry and government failed in their legislative duty and moral responsibility to enforce mechanisms of environmental protection that would secure the health of the community. The evidence is clear that industry is polluting. The oil industry with its record profits over the last year should be required by government to clean up its act.

"We must learn to compromise," was the message of President Mandela on the 28th March 1995 when he addressed the South Durban communities who protested against pollution at the Engen refinery. The communities adjacent to oil refineries have now compromised and been compromised enough. Now that they have scientific proof that the refineries are affecting their health, the oil industry must now be the one’s to compromise. They must make use of their combined annual profits of close to R2 billion to improve their environmental performance and benefit South Africans who are living adjacent to their plants, rather than just their shareholders in foreign countries.

Government's response

The Ministry of Environmental Affairs and Tourism has made some firm statements recently with regards to the irresponsible activities of industry. In her recent budget speech Deputy Minister RT Mabudafhasi stated; "I want to clearly state that as government we have zero tolerance for companies that damage the health of residents and workers through their activities." (May 19, 2000).

This strong statement has been welcomed by civil society and we await an invitation from the Deputy Minister to work together with the Ministry in seeking solutions to the air pollution problems around oil refineries. In the meantime, the communities around the refineries are empowering themselves to ensure that the structural mechanism that is finally adopted by the Ministry to protect the health of the people, is correctly informed by the communities who are daily having to face the problem of oil refinery pollution.

Pollution, poverty and a threat to our democracy

In May 1998, during the "Speak out on Poverty" campaign, Archbishop Ndungane highlighted that environmental degradation leads to the further impoverishment of the poor and vulnerable. President Thabo Mbeki’s statement in May 2000 that "Poverty is Threatening our Democracy" must be heeded by polluting industries, for their pollution, which further impoverishes the poor and vulnerable, will eventually threaten the corner stone of our democracy.

S. (Bobby) Peek

P.O. Box 2375
Pietermaritzburg 3200
South Africa

Tel: +27-33-342 5662
Fax: +27-33-342 5665
Cell: +27-82-464 1383


Building a Sustainable Energy Agenda at the Local Level
Energy is a community issue

Low productivity, indoor pollution, risks of fires and poisoning are all products of unsustainable energy services currently on offer to many of Africa’s low-income communities. Energy efficient houses and appliances, improved cookers, access to electricity and modern energy services from gas to renewable energy are just some of the options available for a more sustainable development path. Unfortunately, however, governments, local authorities, service providers and communities are not always aware of the full range of choices available to them in this area.

A local agenda with global links

Recently, there has been a political trend in the Southern African region, where countries are devolving power and capacity to provincial and district authorities. This trend is in keeping with the concept of Local Agenda 21 elaborated at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio in 1992, which recognises that the full participation of local authorities and other stakeholders is critical towards achieving the goal of sustainable development.

Over the past few years, energy issues have become an important part of the global agenda. When the UN General Assembly reviewed the outcomes of the Rio Conference at the special Rio+5 session in 1997 (UNGASS), energy was recognised as a crucial element of sustainable development and was consequently given far greater priority in the years to come. Important milestones in this regard will be the 9th meeting of the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) in May 2001 where energy has been designated as an over-riding concern, and the Rio+10 session in June 2002, which in all likelihood will be held in South Africa.

Local desires for improved and more sustainable energy services, combined with the decentralisation efforts of national governments and the global energy agenda have all contributed to the need to view energy from a local perspective. Among other things this means considering how energy is integrated with local development priorities, and how in turn local government, service providers and communities can effectively mobilise around these energy concerns. The more informed local players are in terms of energy matters, the better position they will be in to negotiate with their respective governments, energy companies and service providers so as to ensure that energy activities are implemented according to local priorities.

A sustainable energy partnership

The local-level energy agenda is therefore the entry point for the Sustainable Energy, Environment and Development (SEED) Programme, that at the moment operates solely in South Africa. A key element in its strategy is that of working with organisations that are already involved in improving the living conditions and services of low-income communities and getting them to integrate a sustainable energy agenda in their activities.

During 1999, eight local authorities and non-governmental organisations in three urban and two rural pilot areas joined the programme. In each of the partner organisations, a young, well-educated South African was recruited, employed and trained to work as an energy and environmental ‘activist’ (called Rural SEED Facilitators or Urban SEED Advisors). They have now become a focal point for building capacity in these partner organisations and for interactions with both communities and public and private service providers. They are given on-going managerial and technical support by the partner organisations.

When the SEED advisors and facilitators started their work in mid 1999, their mandates were not rigidly defined, but were rather open to being dictated by the needs of the partner organisations and the communities that they work with. Each of them has therefore developed differently, while still sharing some common elements.

Sustainable housing – the urban focus

In its three urban pilot areas SEED has focused on sustainable and affordable housing, in co-operation with six partner organisations.

In Cape Town the SEED partners are the City of Tygerberg and Development Action Group (DAG). Among its current activities are the establishment of a demonstration centre in Khayelitsha, energy efficient rehabilitation of storm damaged houses in Guguletu as well as the integration of energy and environment concerns in the construction of 2300 new homes in the south western part of Khayelitsha.

In Durban the SEED partners are Durban Metro Housing Unit and Build Environment Support Group (BESG). Some of its current activities include demonstration and manufacturing of energy saving wonder-boxes; development of information packs for first time homeowners including energy conservation measures; environmental guidelines for developers; a feasibility study on Solar Water Heaters and producing an environmental programme with Durban Youth Radio.

In Gauteng the SEED partners are Midrand Local Council and Earth Life Africa (ELA). Its projects include surveys of consumer responses to solar water heaters, installation of pilot ceilings for energy conservation, and the installation of clean and efficient paraffin cookers and water heaters.

Integrating energy and rural development

In its two rural pilot areas, SEED focuses on the integration of sustainable energy in rural development. The main partner is the Environmental Development Agency Trust (EDA) in Pietersburg, Northern Province and Matatiele, Eastern Cape.

The main thrust so far has been that of helping local organisational development around energy issues. In the area around Matatiele, SEED and EDA have facilitated the establishment of energy committees in five villages, as a sub-structure under the Local Development Forums. The Energy Committees have started a process to identify and prioritise energy needs. In the Northern Province, SEED and EDA have facilitated similar Energy Committees in the Ngwaabe areas and around Bochum. As a next step, the Energy Committees will be assisted in formulating local-level action plans.

SEED and EDA have been instrumental in communicating between the communities and service providers such as ESKOM, Department of Minerals and Energy, Department of Agriculture, Mvula Trust, gas distribution companies etc. Apart from contributing to a more general co-ordination, this has resulted in some communities gaining access to electricity for the supply of water to vegetable gardens and other productive purposes.

Building the local agenda

Even though the programme is still in its infancy and there is consequently a great deal more to do, the results this far look promising. In their own manner and timing, the partner organisations are slowly beginning to absorb the SEED agenda into their strategies and activities. In most of the pilot areas, a fruitful interaction and collaboration has been established with service providers such as ESKOM, building contractors, fossil fuel companies, as well as with different NGOs, CBOs, and the emerging rural energy utilities. In addition, most of the communities welcome the SEED approach as a sorely needed way for them to gain a firmer grip on energy issues.

In the coming period, SEED and its partners will jointly look into the possibilities of developing more focused local action plans, which could then form a basis for more comprehensive interventions by the partner organisations or the service providers. Identification of possible sustainable energy investments is likely to be among one of its key elements.

National communication

Local energy problems and options are often well known to the general public, service providers and national level decision-makers in Parliament and Government. Many of the decisions that are made at the national level, however, have local impacts and should therefore be informed from the local level. SEED is therefore working to create such national-local communication and interaction, by amongst other things, the medium of presentations to the South African Parliament and Government, as well as via a web-site and a quarterly newsletter.

Regional outreach

After many years of a technology and supply oriented approach being adopted towards energy issues, the necessity for a needs-oriented and integrated approach towards energy is becoming evident in Africa as well as around the world. There is thus immense scope for exchange of know-how and experience. At the sub-regional level, the SEED Programme has established contacts with Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique and Namibia so as to explore options for exchange and co-operation. This regional exchange is expected to be strengthened in the coming years.

The Energy and Development Research Centre (EDRC) implements the rural activities. The Energy and Development Group (EDG) implements the urban activities. SEED is organised as a NGO co-operation programme between South Africa and Denmark, funded by Danced.

René Karottki
SEED Programme Advisor
Email: rene@energetic.uct.ac.za


More information on SEED can be found on www.seedlinks.org.za.

Should you be interested in receiving the newsletter (free of charge), or other general information on SEED, please contact media officer Patrick van Sleight on tel. 021 650 3230, fax 021 650 2830 or ermail: patrick@energetic.uct.ac.za

For specific urban issues, contact Project Manager Sarah Ward, EDG, PO Box 261, Noordhoek 7985, tel 021 789 2920, fax: 021 789 2954 or email: sarah@edg.co.za

For specific rural issues contact Project Manager Bill Cowan, EDRC, University of Cape Town, Private Bag, Rondebosch 7701, tel: 021 650 3230, fax: 021 650 2830 or email: bill@energetic.uct.ac.za