natural resources and environment ENSight | 7 November 2018

To green or not too green? Navigating South Africa towards a greener energy supply

by Zinzi Lawrence, Edwin Berman and Lloyd Christie

South Africa’s ongoing energy crisis has demonstrated that there needs to be a just transition towards a sustainable energy supply in the country, but there are differing views on how to get there. Coal has traditionally dominated the energy sector and the country’s primary energy needs are still mainly met by coal-fired power stations. As such, it has been suggested that the State eliminate coal from the energy supply mix entirely. However, many South Africans still do not have access to electricity and, from a constitutional perspective, it is not clear if the interests of those South Africans would be best served by an immediate coal-free power base. A structured transition from coal reliance to energy resilience should be favoured over a summary overhaul of the current energy generation system.  

Growing concerns over the contribution of fossil fuels to climate change has compelled the international community to explore alternative clean sources of energy. Renewable energy (such as wind, solar, hydropower and biomass) has been pegged as the most suitable competitor to fossil fuels. While renewable energy is a viable source of energy and could very well replace coal in the future, the notion that renewable energy can just simply replace coal in the short-term is misguided. According to the Minerals Council National Coal Strategy for South Africa 2018 report, not only is coal key to the economic development of the country, it is an important source of employment that provides 81 000 direct jobs, and an estimated 170 000 indirect jobs. Hence, many countries are adopting greener forms of coal mining and production. A case can certainly therefore be made, from a legal perspective, for the continued regulated use of coal in conjunction with renewable resources to keep the lights on and to meet South Africa’s commitment under the Paris Agreement to address the challenge of climate change. 

To mitigate the undesirable environmental and health impacts of coal, South Africa’s robust environmental laws must be enforced in a consistent and conscientious manner. The Electricity Regulation Act, 2006 regulates electricity planning and empowers the Minister of Energy to publish determinations for new generation capacity. The minister has made numerous determinations for the procurement of energy from, inter alia, renewable energy sources under the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Programme. The South African Government is not oblivious to the impacts of coal on health and the environment and is currently exploring alternative energy sources. For example, government recently kicked off Operation Phakisa, the offshore oil and gas exploration project which, if successful, will serve to contribute towards meeting the country’s future energy demand. Furthermore, the Draft Integrated Resources Plan, 2018, which outlines the country’s current and future electricity demand and how the demand will be met, was released for comment on 27 August 2018 and contemplates the resultant installed capacity mix in the year 2030 to be, inter alia, 44.6% coal, 6.2% hydro, 10.5% solar PV, 15.1% wind, and 15.7% gas. South Africa now has an opportunity to proactively legislate for the regulation of an environmentally sustainable yet flexible gas-to-power generation capacity. 

There is not one but rather many options available to the State to transition to a greener energy supply. Coal and renewable energy sources are not mutually exclusive; both are key towards the economic growth of the country.

Zinzi Lawrence is a candidate attorney in ENSafrica's natural resources and environment department.


Lloyd Christie

natural resources and environment | director
cell: +27 82 210 2159

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Edwin Berman

natural resources and environment | associate
cell: +27 82 560 1386

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