Local Government’s Role in Energy Transitions is Poorly Understood

Mark Borchers, Megan Euston-Brown and Melusile Ndlovu from Sustainable Energy Africa recently contributed this post to the Urbanafrica.net Urban Voices series, analysing the role of local government in sustainable energy transitions. The original is reproduced in full below.

African local governments have an important role to play in sustainable energy transitions, yet the ability within local governments to step into this role is severely inadequate. This is problematic because municipalities, in close contact with their citizenry, are often better placed to plan and respond to energy needs in locally appropriate ways than national governments or other ‘external’ agents.

Urbanization rates in Africa are amongst the highest in the world and the municipal capacity to undertake minimum levels of urban planning and basic service delivery is severely inadequate, as acknowledged by the African Development Bank, UNHabitat and Cities Alliance.

A major challenge is that local government is poorly understood by those trying to be agents of change, and research often remains at a superficial level. Even work which specifically aims at going beyond the usual ‘vague policy suggestions,’ to use a phrase from the ACC’s Edgar Pieterse, struggles to get to grips with many key local government dynamics, and the number of outputs produced by consultants or researchers with local government as an intended target audience, which have little or no purchase, is worrying.

Non-profit Sustainable Energy Africa’s experience of working in partnership with local government in South Africa for 17 years to support with sustainable energy transitions affirms this. The organization has provided capacity to local government in areas where government did not have experience, staff or systems, and in an environment where officials are often preoccupied with short-term service delivery and other urgent goals displace longer-term considerations such as those linked to climate change mitigation.

Sustainable Energy Africa has spent years supporting several municipalities in the development of energy and climate change strategies. However, after official approval of the first few strategies, it started becoming apparent that the momentum that had led to strategy finalization rarely continued into implementation. For example, the first set of strategies developed in the municipalities of Cape Town, Sol Plaatjie, Ekurhuleni, Buffalo City and Tshwane struggled to gain significant traction.

What followed was many years of supportive partnership with municipalities: participating in meetings, undertaking research in areas where there were concerns, developing specific motivations for political or other vested interests as they arose, engaging with city treasury to raise their awareness and explore workable revenue futures, exchanging lessons and sharing success stories amongst municipalities, and raising the profile of local issues in national fora and strategies.

Sustainable Energy Africa’s experience has demonstrated that the work involved in getting to the point of having an officially approved energy and climate change strategy is but a small fraction of what is required for any real change to gain traction. Unfortunately, the dynamics that impede efforts to bring the strategy to fruition are often poorly understood by development support institutions (including donors) and researchers. Guidelines and resource documents on urban transport policy development, climate proofing of informal settlements, and energy efficiency financing, to give a few examples, are often of little use to local government. Research focusing on dynamics affecting service delivery and assessments of renewable energy options for urban areas, for example, seldom talk to the constraints and pressures that senior officials encounter on a day-to-day basis, and thus tend to have little impact.

It is not surprising that adequately detailed understanding of local government is lacking, precisely because it is difficult to gain useful insight into this world from normal development support programmes, which may last a few years and often involve imported expertise, or from research projects, even if they are methodologically well considered. To illustrate, about 10 years ago work undertaken by development support organisations and researchers pointed to solar water heaters being economically, socially and environmentally beneficial for application across South Africa’s urban areas. Cost and technical feasibility studies were undertaken, presentations made, guidelines produced, case studies circulated, and workshops held. Introducing solar water heaters was considered by many to be a ‘no brainer’, and was a standard feature of all municipal energy strategies developed at the time. Yet over the years little changed. Within municipalities there were staff capacity barriers, institutional location uncertainties, debates around mandates, political ambivalence, and a good dose of plain old resistance to change.

When one of the most progressive South African municipalities finally developed a detailed solar water heater rollout programme, further obstacles had to be negotiated: it ran foul of the city treasury (it threatened electricity sales and thus revenue), electricity department (impact on the load profile, technical issues and revenue), procurement department (selection of different equipment service providers), housing department (roof strength issues of some government housing), and legal department (ownership of equipment and tendering processes), which further delayed progress by several years.

Heaters
Solar water heaters on low-income housing in South Africa. Image: SEA

Other sustainability interventions such as energy efficiency in buildings, renewable electricity generation and densification (an important enabler of sustainable transport options) all face their own mix of complexities, most of which are difficult to know from the outside.

Change in government institutions seldom happens fast. When those hoping to be agents of change better understand the complexities of municipal functioning, transformation can be more effectively facilitated. Supporting local government often means entering an uncomfortable, messy, non-linear space but it can be more effectively done than often happens. In many ways, what is required is an inversion of the usual approach: support agents or researchers need to respond to the specific, not the general; listen, not advise; seek to be of service rather than pursue a preconceived agenda. The focus of the lens needs to shift well beyond general observations on ‘local institutional capacity’, ‘reform of regulatory systems’ or ‘policy impasses’. What is needed is a much more detailed, nuanced, and longer-term understanding and set of relationships for more impactful engagement.

Through applying these approaches, Sustainable Energy Africa’s work in South Africa has helped local government move from being considered irrelevant to the energy field 10 years ago to being regarded as critical agents to a sustainable energy future today.

A recent independent review of Sustainable Energy Africa’s local government support programme points to its success. It is described as, amongst others, having a clear role in the development of nation-wide city energy data, in facilitating energy efficiency programmes in different sectors in several municipalities, in promoting renewable energy (often rooftop solar PV) in several major cities, and in institutionalizing sustainable energy and climate change issues within municipalities.

Drawing on the above experience, the SAMSET project is working with African municipalities at a detailed level in partnership with universities and development organisations in Africa and the UK, and six municipalities in Uganda, Ghana and South Africa. This collaboration walks the full process of systemic change with the municipalities, and focuses the lens of research and implementation support on this inadequately understood, yet critical, arena – the detailed dynamics in the belly of the local government beast.

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