Category Archives: Sustainable Energy Africa

Energy Poverty in Peri–urban Communities in Polokwane, South Africa – Identifying the Issues

Hlengiwe Radebe from SEA writes on energy poverty issues affecting peri-urban communities in Polokwane Municipality.

According to Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) Polokwane municipality, capital of the Limpopo Province in the north of South Africa and a SAMSET partner municipality, is 40% urban and 60% rural. In South Africa, most rural areas have basic service delivery challenges, and are still under the authority of traditional leaders. Part of the function of traditional leaders is to allocate land for new settlement. This traditionally-owned land does not have a typical market value and is usually far cheaper than land in urban areas.

Although 60% of land is described as rural in Polokwane, parts of the rural areas in Polokwane are transitioning from rural to urban areas (peri-urban), presenting a particular set of challenge to urban development. Some degree of agriculture still persists, but most people residing here are already dependent on urban jobs or grant payments. As part of urban municipalities, these areas have access to electricity, piped water and what one may call semi-adequate infrastructure. However, as ‘traditional land’ households are not part of the municipal rates and taxes system, presenting fiscal challenges to municipalities providing the services. Given that the land cost is very low, there is a strong incentive for the working municipal residents to obtain land and build in these outlying, but semi-serviced areas, rather than purchase expensive land in the urban areas. This does not lead to efficient settlement structure and increases the cost of servicing residents, including with adequate public transport.


An example of a house in Dikgale (Image: Alberts, M. et al (2015))

A good example of this situation is Ga Dikgale community in Polokwane municipality. Ga Dikgale has a population of 36000 residents in 7000 households. Dikgale is found approximately 40 kilometers north-east of Polokwane. The population lives in dwellings that range from shacks to brick houses. Mostly people are of Paedi ethnic group, all-African, and are an ageing population. The majority of the populace is economically disadvantaged in an area characterized by high unemployment rates, poor road infrastructure and poor service delivery. My visit to Dikgale brought back childhood memories – a sense of community where people could still walk to their neighbours and ask for salt or mealie meal.

A recent household energy survey (funded by Brot) conducted in partnership between Sustainable Energy Africa, University of Limpopo and Polokwane Municipality, covering 388 households in Dikgale, showed that 98% of households are electrified. The has been made possible by the South African government, that made a strategic decision to electrify all South African households both rural and urban, informal and formal, post the first democratic elections in 1994. This successful and globally leading National Electrification Programme was funded by national grants. As of 2016, according to Statistics South Africa, the South African government had electrified 91.1% households both in rural and urban areas although electrification rates in urban areas are significantly higher than in rural areas.

The survey revealed that electricity is indeed the primary energy source for household lighting, cooking and heating in most Dikgale households. Interestingly, in the area electricity is often referred to as “mabone” meaning light, as many households use the electricity for mostly lighting purposes. The survey indicated that wood is the secondary source of energy most commonly used for cooking, water and space heating. This is because households often run out of electricity due to lack of money, once their monthly Free-Basic Electricity (FBE) allowance provided by the municipality is used up. Other key energy challenges emerging from the survey in the area were:

  • Lack of awareness around the Free Basic Electricity grant: This grant promotes the Constitutional right of all South Africans to modern, safe energy services, and provides indigent households with the first 50 – 100 KWh free of charge (Eskom supplied areas are provided with 50KWh and the municipality supplied areas receive 100KWH). The survey indicated that, of all of the indigent households, far too few are registered to receive the FBE grant from the municipality;
  • Houses have no ceilings and corrugated iron roofs: this reduces the thermal performance of the house significantly. Houses without ceilings are colder in winter, where outdoor nighttime temperatures often drop to around zero degrees, and hotter in summer, where outdoor daytime temperatures of 30 degrees and above are common;
  • Lack of awareness around energy-saving options such as the ‘wonderbox’. A wonderbox, also commonly known as a ‘hot box’, is an insulating bag which holds the heat of the pot after boiling and thus reduces the amount of fuel needed to cook the meal, lowering energy costs. This works with most common meals, such as ‘pap’ (a traditional porridge made from mielie-meal), samp, beans, rice and stew. (Image: Marole Mathabatha)

Having identified the above challenges, Polokwane Municipality and other municipalities in similar situations can address the current energy needs of peri-urban communities more effectively. From the Dikgale household energy survey, it appears that alternative energy approaches can reduce costs, improve comfort levels and reduce the use of traditional and other problematic energy sources, with associated pollution and environmental degradation improvements. Even where FBE is delivered to indigent households, this is not enough to keep households going for a month. Alternative technologies such as solar lights, wonderbox, tshisa box (a 10 litre portable solar kettle) and solar cookers are some of the technologies that could benefit households. They may also create small business opportunities in the area. However, the past has taught us that community acceptance of such technologies thoroughly needed for any rollout to be successful. Social acceptance factors are not easily understood without trying them out in practice.

Access to modern, safe and reliable electricity is a key challenge in many African countries. Peri-urban areas can sometimes fall through the cracks – not being adequately addressed by either urban or rural service delivery programmes. Polokwane municipality, in partnership with Sustainable Energy Africa and a steering committee of key stakeholders, is pioneering a rollout of alternative services, starting with hot boxes that will be made locally as part of a small business development initiative. How Polokwane deals with these challenges and this pilot project could provide useful lessons for other municipalities in improving energy delivery to low income households.

Hot box locally produced by 5 young women from Ga Dikgale (Image: Hlengiwe Radebe)

3 of the 5 young women from Ga Dikgale running a small business producing hot boxes (Image: Hlengiwe Radebe)

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Urban and Rural Energy Access: “Leapfrogging”?

Mark Borchers from SEA writes on the recent context of SAMSET work in the wider space of urban and rural energy access in the developing world.

Christoph Frei, Secretary General of the World Energy Council[1] recently noted that “only three years ago, when suggesting to energy professionals that there could be ‘leap frogging’ in energy similar to what has happened in the mobile phone industry, the response would have suggested little understanding of energy realities. We now see tens of thousands of direct household solutions being delivered to rural Africa without a formal supply chain and in the absence of any energy infrastructure backbone. What does leapfrogging mean, if not this?”

…and…

“In many rural contexts in Africa, renewables are providing an engine for local development and poverty reduction.  Of the two-thirds of people in Africa without access to power, 80% live outside urban centres. A mix of off-grid renewable power instalments could be the key to electrifying rural Africa with consumers buying power locally and paying via their mobile phone.”

The potential of energy delivery modes “without a formal supply chain and in the absence of any energy infrastructure backbone” that Frei speaks of is indeed exciting. This largely bypasses the cumbersome processes of central institutions with their inefficiencies and mixed agendas.

He also notes: “For the energy sector, unprecedented speed of change and new realities pose a wide range of challenges and new opportunities for companies and governments who are on a high-stakes journey to adapt their business models and policy frameworks.”

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Energy leapfrogging does not only apply to rural areas, direct benefits to the local economy can be seen in large cities such as Kampala, above. Image: Daniel Kerr

Frei importantly reinforces the perception that the energy sector is changing rapidly, and that the old way of doing things – where centralized planning and large utilities are the key players – needs revisiting, as it is unlikely to be the way of the future.  Yet most national governments and utilities in Sub-Saharan Africa seem to be moving into the future as if this is not the case, with the potential for stranded assets and business failure. Surely new approaches and business models need to be explored more urgently.

Secondly, Frei emphasizes rural energy access in Africa. This rural focus is clearly important, and it suits national governments whose political support is generally rural-based (opposition movements tend to grow from urban areas).  But this traditional focus on rural access can unduly overshadow the importance of urban energy access. Looking at access to electricity, although most unelectrified households are currently rural (around 550 million people are unelectrified), urban electrification rates are not high – often well below 50% – and currently around 150 million urban dwellers have no access to electricity[2]. Between 2035 and 2040 Africa’s population is expected to become predominately urban[3].  Modelling undertaken by Sustainable Energy Africa as part of the SAMSET project[4] indicates that the future energy demand of Sub-Saharan Africa is likely to be substantially urban, with the urban share of total demand rising to over 75% by 2040 (see Figure).  We should not overlook that there are huge opportunities to boost access to modern energy in urban areas. It is in urban areas that populations are closer to infrastructure, more dense, with higher average incomes and where delivery systems can be more cost-effective.  It is in urban areas also where the very poor can be the most destitute, with reduced access even to traditional biomass energy.   It seems justifiable to encourage a parallel focus on rural and urban access in a sector where ‘access’ currently seems almost entirely synonymous with ‘rural access’.

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Figure: Urban sub-Saharan energy demand over time showing Business-as-Usual, Universal Access and Energy Efficiency scenarios. Total sub-Saharan Africa energy demand (urban and rural) is also shown (Source: Modelling the Urban Energy Future of Sub-Saharan Africa, Sustainable Energy Africa, 2015).

One more point worth considering regarding the urban-rural population dynamic: At a recent course SAMSET was running for municipal officials and urban energy practitioners, a lecturer asked “how many of you are first generation urban, or still consider your ‘home’ to be in a rural area?”.  The majority raised their hand. There may be various implications of this characteristic: urban-rural remittances are likely to remain common into the medium-term, which could facilitate rural energy access with small decentralized technologies such as PV being funded from urban earners for their rural homes and families.  On the other hand remittances may reduce investment in urban areas, which may impact to some extent on urban economies and possibly also the willingness to invest in urban energy infrastructure.  Let’s keep an eye on how this dynamic plays itself out over the coming years.

[1] World Energy Council Secretary General reflects on key highlights of 2016. Africa Energy Indaba Press Release, 12 January 2017

[2] Calculation from IEA’s African Energy Outlook 2014 electrification database.

[3] African Urban Futures 2016, Bello-Schünemann and Aucoin; State of African Cities 2014, UN Habitat

[4] Modelling the Urban Energy Future of Sub-Saharan Africa, Sustainable Energy Africa, 2015. www.africancityenergy.org

SDG 7 and SE4All: The role of Sub-Saharan Local Governments in Supporting Sustainable Energy Goals

This blog explores the role of Sub-Saharan African local governments can play in supporting the SDG energy-related goals and SE4All goals.  It suggests that they play a key role in this area given that they are often at the forefront of service delivery and end-user interaction. Yet overall the capacity and resource needs of local governments on the sub-continent remain under-prioritised by national governments, international development aid agendas, and the global research community.

The goals of SDG7 and SE4All are closely aligned, but there are also other SDG goals that are relevant to sustainable urban energy.  The SDG7 targets are:

  • By 2030, ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services
  • By 2030, increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix
  • By 2030, double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency
  • By 2030, enhance international cooperation to facilitate access to clean energy research and technology
  • By 2030, expand infrastructure and upgrade technology for supplying modern and sustainable energy services for all

In addition, relevant goals from SDG11 (sustainable cities) include access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems, enhancing the capacity for integrated and sustainable human settlement planning, and addressing the impact of poor air quality and municipal waste. All of these are closely linked to sustainable energy futures.

Many Sub-Saharan African countries have, or intend to develop, plans whereby the SDG7 and SE4All goals can be pursued.  For example both Ghana and Uganda have such plans (Ghana SE4All Action Plan 2012, Uganda SE4All Action Agenda 2015), although it is notable that such key energy planning documents do not mention the transport sector – a major and fast growing energy consumer and emissions contributor. South Africa does not appear to have specific SE4All planning documents, although many initiatives exist in the country which are in pursuit of these objectives.

Numerous important sustainable energy initiatives are substantially linked to, or dependent on, national processes and mandates, or are best handled at a centralized national level (e.g. national power grid capacity upgrading, or changing regulatory frameworks around local generation).  Nevertheless, much lies within the mandate or direct influence of local governments, and globally there is an increasing emphasis on local players taking a stronger role in sustainable energy issues, as has been reflected at the recent COP gatherings in Paris and Marakesh.  In this regard, the work of the SAMSET project (Supporting sub-Saharan African Municipalities with Sustainable Energy Transitions) indicates that local governments on the sub-continent, and local research organisations, can play an important role in the following areas.

Local facilitation of household energy programmes which are driven by national or other players, such as cookstove, efficient appliance and electrification programmes: this includes collecting and providing information and data on needs and opportunities in local area; participating in implementation planning, community awareness raising and communication, and monitoring once implemented (all of these are best done at a local level); conducting research on impact and methodology improvements (Has it improved welfare? How could it have been better implemented? Costs vs benefits? Subsidy needs and justification? etc), and conducting research on impact on local small businesses (e.g. charcoal producers and retailers, appliance shops, cookstove manufacturers etc).

Promotion or facilitation of renewable energy programmes which need to be at least partially locally based (which may be driven locally or by national or other players), such as biogas, rooftop grid-connected solar PV, and solar water heating initiatives: this includes identification of local biogas opportunities (e.g. abattoir) and facilitating feasibility studies; engaging with power utility around local grid-connected solar PV pilot projects; engaging with local businesses (e.g. solar water heater, solar PV suppliers) regarding how to facilitate rollout and improve affordability; awareness raising and community engagement, and monitoring of implementation; research on impact and methodology improvements to maximize benefits; promotion and advocacy around fast-emerging options such as rooftop grid-connected solar PV; direct procurement of solar PV streetlights, and undertaking landfill gas feasibility studies and subsequent implementation pursuit.

Building energy efficiency promotion (local government often has direct mandates here): this includes developing local bylaws for commercial building energy efficiency; awareness raising around residential building energy efficiency (appropriate window use, shading etc), and organising training of building sector to improve ability for energy efficient construction.

Industrial energy efficiency promotion: including encouraging/incentivising audits (e.g. link with donor EE programmes), and facilitating training and awareness programmes locally.

Bringing sustainable energy concerns into spatial planning and transport planning: this includes introducing densification, corridor development, mixed use and other approaches into spatial plans; bringing tribal authorities (land owners) and municipal officials together in developing a shared vision around spatial futures, and researching and modeling the impact of different spatial and transport interventions on future energy, cost, social welfare, and economic activity – and engage with regional and national transport planning processes to introduce more optimal approaches.

Developing a more conducive enabling environment for implementation: this includes linking with support/donor programmes around supporting sustainable energy, and identifying how collaboration could work; researching and providing local data on energy status, problems, and opportunities; researching and communicating updates on implementation status as programmes are implemented, and evaluate their impact; capacity building of local government staff; programmatic partnerships between local government and local research institutions; developing networks amongst local governments for lessons exchange and mutual support, and developing links between local, regional and national players to facilitate integrated planning and coordinated approaches

Helping clarify the role of local government in sustainable energy, and identify effective methodologies to support them in fulfilling this potential: this includes researching the process of local government involvement and role in sustainable energy, and assess their challenges in this regard, researching approaches to supporting local government to engage effectively with sustainable energy promotion, and disseminate experience in this regard and potential for local government in promoting sustainable energy at workshops, conferences, meetings etc.

The role of local governments and local research organisations in moving to a more sustainable energy future as envisioned by the SDGs is clearly substantial. This has implications for development aid resource allocation and research funding channels.  Importantly, it is not enough to just fund research – a dual approach of partnerships with researchers who align directly with the needs of local governments, as well as a strong focus on real capacity building of local governments is important (note that information dissemination is not capacity building).  Programmes such as SAMSET are working in this area, but the needs are currently far greater than the enabling resources, by an order of magnitude at least.

Sub Saharan African local government and SDG 7 – is there a link?

Megan Euston-Brown from SEA writes on the importance of considering local government spheres in sustainable energy development in light of the recent UN Sustainable Development Goals 7.

Building an urban energy picture for Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) is a relatively new endeavour, but policy makers would do well to take heed of the work underway [1]. The emerging picture indicates that current levels of energy consumption in the urban areas of SSA is proportionally higher than population and GDP [2]. These areas represent dense nodes of energy consumption. Africa’s population is expected to nearly double from 2010 to 2040 with over 50% of population urbanized by 2040 (AfDB 2011). Thus by 2040 it is likely that well over 50% of the energy consumed in the region will be consumed within urban areas. Strategies to address energy challenges – notably those contained within SDG 7 relating to the efficient deployment of clean energy and energy access for all – must therefore be rooted in an understanding of the end uses of energy in these localities for effective delivery.

SDGs

Analyses of the end uses of energy consumption in urban SSA generally indicate the overwhelming predominance of the transport sector. Residential and commercial sectors follow as prominent demands. Cooking, water heating, lighting and space cooling are high end use applications. Industrial sector energy consumption is of course critical to the economy, but is generally a relatively small part of the urban energy picture (either through low levels of industrialisation or energy intensive heavy industries lying outside municipal boundaries).

Spatial form and transport infrastructure are strong drivers of urban transport energy demand. Meeting the ‘low carbon’ challenge in SSA will depend on zoning and settlement patterns (functional densities), along with transport infrastructure, that enables, continues to prioritise and greatly improve, public modalities. These approaches will also build greater social inclusion and mobility.

The high share of space heating, ventilation and lighting end uses of total urban energy demand points to the significant role of the built environment in urban end use energy consumption.

These drivers of energy demand are areas that intersect strongly with local government functions and would not be addressed through a traditional supply side energy policy [3]. Understanding the local mandate in this regard will be important in meeting national and global sustainable energy targets.

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Urban highway in Ghana. Image: Dennis Mokoala)

The goal of access to modern, safe energy sources is predominantly a national supply-side concern. However, with the growth of decentralised systems (and indeed household or business unit scale systems being increasingly viable) local government may have a growing role in this area. In addition an energy services approach that supplements energy supply with services such as solar water heating, or efficiency technologies (e.g. LED lighting), may draw in local government as the traditionally mandated service delivery locus of government.

An analysis of the mandate of local government with regard to sustainable energy development across Ghana, South Africa and Uganda indicates:

  1. National constitutional objectives provide a strong mandate for sustainable development, environmental protection and energy access and local government would need to interpret their functions through this constitutional ‘lens’;
  2. Knowing the impact of a fossil fuel business-as-usual trajectory on local and global environments, local government would be constitutionally obliged to undertake their activities in a manner that supports a move towards a lower carbon energy future;
  3. Infrastructure and service delivery would need to support the national commitments to energy access for all;
  4. Decentralisation of powers and functions to local government is a principle across the three countries reviewed, but the degree of devolution of powers differs and will affect the ability of local government to proactively engage in new approaches;
  5. Existing functional areas where local government may have a strong influence in supporting national and global SDG 7 (sustainable energy) targets include: municipal facilities and operations, basic services (water, sanitation, and in some instances energy/electricity) and service infrastructure, land use planning (zoning and development planning approval processes), urban roads and public transport services and building control.
  6. Where local government has a strong service delivery function it is well placed to be a site of delivery for household energy services and to play a role in facilitating embedded generation. New technologies may mean that smaller, decentralised electricity systems offer greater resilience and cost effectiveness over large systems in the face of rapid demand growth. These emerging areas will require policy development and support.

In practice the ability of local government to respond to these mandates is constrained by the slow or partial implementation of administrative and fiscal decentralisation in the region. Political support of longer-term sustainable urban development pathways is vital. Experience in South Africa suggests that the process is dynamic and iterative: as experience, knowledge and capacity develops locally in relation to sustainable energy functions, so the national policy arena begins to engage with this. Thus, while international programmes and national policy would do well to engage local government towards meeting SDG 7, local government also needs to proactively build its own capacity to step into the space.

[1] In South Africa this work has been underway since 2003; SAMSET is pioneering such work in Ghana and in Uganda and the World Bank’s ESMAP has explored this area in Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya. SAMSET is also undertaking a continent-wide urban energy futures model.

[2] Working Paper: An exploration of the sustainable energy mandate at the local government level in Sub-Saharan Africa, with a focus on Ghana, South Africa and Uganda. Euston-Brown, Bawakyillenuo, Ndibwambi and Agbelie (2015).

[3] Noting that not all drivers of energy demand intersect with local government functions, for example, increasing income will drive a shift to energy intensive private transport; and that population and economic growth will always be the overarching drivers of demand.

Decentralised Solar PV Acceleration in South Africa

Mark Borchers from SEA writes on a recent visit to an embedded photovoltaic generation project in a commercial building, and the insights into the industry acceleration gained there.

I recently visited a shopping mall in Tshwane, South Africa, which had installed a grid-connected solar PV system on its roof (called an ‘embedded’ generator – because it is embedded in the local distribution grid). This is not unusual in the country nowadays, and estimates are that over 1000 embedded, distributed PV systems are in existence around the country, generating 40 to 50 Megawatts during the day. But I was struck by the fact that the mall developer said that for them such installations are now a financial no-brainer – giving an 18% internal rate of return (IRR) with a 5 year payback (whereas the decision to build a mall only requires a 10% IRR). So they intend to do these installations on all malls they construct. What’s behind this trend? Largely a combination of steadily reducing international solar PV prices and consistently higher-than-inflation electricity price hikes. Also, mall and other commercial operation load profiles tend to match solar PV generation quite well, being daytime-peaking.

rooftoppv1

While national government and most municipalities do not yet have clear regulatory frameworks to accommodate such installations, the financial case particularly in the commercial sector is such that they are happening anyway, leaving the government to catch a horse that has already bolted from the stable. A few quick calculations show that mall construction alone is likely to add 6 or more Mega-Watts (MW) of solar PV to the country’s electricity grid capacity per year. Others estimate that 500MW per year could be added from these embedded PV systems from all sectors. That’s about 1% of the total national generation capacity per year, which is significant, and something that national electricity planners will have to take seriously.

There are many benefits to these developments, but also challenges. The benefits include growth in renewable, low carbon energy, local economic development, and the fact that such generation capacity is entirely privately funded. The challenges include potential revenue loss from electricity distributors due to reduced sales, and balancing the grid power at a national level to meet the country’s demand – particularly the evening peak demand where solar PV does not contribute. There has been significant work done to show how the country can negotiate these challenges, but it does mean that well-entrenched systems have to adjust and change – which seldom happens quickly. Overall, this trend is in keeping with what is being observed internationally: that the future will move increasingly towards decentralized generation, with solar PV in particular becoming an increasingly big player. It has been suggested that the days of large power utilities are numbered. (Bloomberg.com)

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This is a development we need to keep an eye on in urban Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. Where national grid power prices are rising fast, as is the case in many African countries, the decreasing international solar PV prices will sooner or later lead to a situation where it makes sense for businesses to install their own grid-connected rooftop systems. And this is likely to happen irrespective of what government or utilities do, or don’t do, about it. It’s an inevitable transformation of the power sector which has big implications for sustainable energy planning in urban areas.

Energy and Africities Summit 2015

Mark Borchers from Sustainable Energy Africa writes on  the recent Africities summit, and the role that SAMSET played in advancing sustainable energy themes at the summit.

The Africities Summit is held every 3 years and is possibly the foremost gathering of African local government politicians and officials on the African continent. It is also well attended by national government and other players such as local and international NGOs.

The SAMSET team attended the 2015 Africities Summit in Johannesburg in November, and SAMSET organized a session on Sustainable Energy in urban Sub-Saharan Africa: the Role of Local Government (see the background paper here). It was competently chaired by the Executive Mayor of Polokwane (a South African municipality), Cllr Thembi Nkadimeng, and key recommendations emerging were included in the Summit outputs.

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Panel Discussion, Africities Summit, Johannesburg, November 2015: Source: Mark Borchers

In addition, SAMSET, in partnership with SALGA, GIZ and the City of Johannesburg, organized fieldtrips to sustainable energy installations in the area – rooftop solar PV, landfill gas electricity generation, sewage methane electricity generation, mass solar water heater rollout, and public transport and spatial planning systems (click here for an example).

Overall, however, although our event was relatively well attended, it was interesting to me that energy and climate change did not seem to be a priority in the minds of the majority of attendees. There were a few energy and/or climate change sessions held, and these did not attract much attention compared with many other sessions. Let us not forget that this relatively low level of participation in the energy events is in the context of a great range of parallel sessions of central importance to local governments, such as those around transparent governance, demographics, financial resources, decentralization and relationships with tribal authorities. In addition, the energy related events were not the only ones with unexpectedly low attendance. Nevertheless, it was apparent to me that energy issues were more peripheral to local government than I had envisaged.

On reflection, this isn’t surprising. Dr Vincent Kitio of UN Habitat Nairobi hosted one such energy event at the 2015 Africities, and told me that a similar event he organized at the previous Africities was the first ever that focused on energy. So energy is a relatively new consideration for local governments. In most African countries energy is considered purely a national function, and the important influence of local government on sustainable energy, such as in transport and spatial planning and building design, and the renewable energy opportunities from waste management, amongst others, has still not been internalized by any sphere of government other than in a scattering of pioneering municipalities across the sub-continent.

Yet, as noted by the Cities Alliance “…as long as cities and local authorities are not put in a position to take initiatives and be at the forefront of actions to make African cities more inclusive, competitive, sustainable, safer and better managed, there is little chance that Africa will overcome the challenges posed by rapid urbanization” (Assessing the Institutional Environment of Local Governments in Africa, 2014, p10).

This need to capacitate and resource local government applies to their role in promoting sustainable energy as well, and is of added urgency given the monumental challenge of meeting SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) 7 in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is the area SAMSET is working in, but, given how far we still have to go, many more players and resources are needed to achieve the huge shifts necessary.

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.

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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.