Category Archives: Sustainable Energy Africa

Energy Efficiency in South Africa – Ineffective Strategy and Unpredictable Successes and Failures

Mark Borchers from SEA writes on the difficulties faced in and with energy efficiency programs and policies in South Africa. South Africa has had an official, approved energy efficiency strategy since 2004. Therein were sensible targets such as 15% industrial energy efficiency improvement by 2014 and 10% residential efficiency by 2014, with an overall efficiency target of 12% by 2014.  And our work in the area supported this potential for saving.  At the time we were hopeful that this would be the start of a more energy efficient, lower carbon trajectory for the country with corresponding economic benefits which are always mentioned in association with energy efficiency.  These were fairly naïve days for us however, as we believed that there was a necessary link between an official government strategy and something actually changing on the ground.  In 2008 the strategy was reviewed and updated partly because it was clear that the earlier strategy had been largely ineffectual. The revised strategy was done with due diligence and stakeholder participation, like the earlier one, and listed similar or higher targets as being reasonable and achievable.    My opinion is that, in spite of a reasonably sound efficiency programme run by the national utility Eskom,  the new strategy was headed along the same ineffectual trajectory as the earlier one… until South Africa hit a power crisis – but I’ll come back to that.

Here I feel it is worth emphasizing an often observed but still not widely internalized fact: that an official strategy is a useful and necessary step, but it is one small factor in creating an enabling environment in which a transition can take place.  How many officials, researchers, consultants and international development organisations are willing to rest on their laurels once the strategy is in place with the belief that the ship has now left the harbor and will arrive at its destination in due course?  The truth is that the strategy is the easy part – its just identifying that the ship should undertake a journey and the approximate route of that journey.  The crew, the skills, the supplies, the money, and the equipment have not been given much thought at this point typically.  Even if the strategy identifies where the money should come from (for example) that is a far cry from actually sourcing the money.   If the strategy development is undertaken in a participatory manner with proper background analysis, it has clear value in capacity building and alignment of stakeholders as well as plotting an appropriate journey, so it is certainly a prerequisite to progress, but my point is that it can very easily lead nowhere after this point unless we are aware that it is just one milestone on a journey of many miles, and should never be regarded as an endpoint of our work.  It is appropriate to pause and look upon the still-warm strategy document with pride, even to hold an official launch, but then to roll up your sleeves and start on the journey of embedding the strategy in the world.

…back to South Africa: Then along came South Africa’s power crisis and steep power price increases.  This caused a flurry of activity, including energy efficiency initiatives in all sectors of the economy, most of which had little or nothing to do with the official energy efficiency strategy!  National Treasury also put aside money for local government efficiency and allocated it to municipalities with binding reporting requirements and timeframes.  The main drivers for efficiency in the country have therefore been power failures, price increases and direct allocation of Treasury funds within a mandatory framework, not the existence of an Energy Efficiency Strategy. There are lessons here for policy development work, capacity building activities, knowledge exchange research and implementation support activities: constraints to transition are mostly not to do with the existence of appropriate policies and strategies, which are often sound and well founded, but rather the detailed and complicated dynamics of the space between policy and implementation, which is generally messy, under-capacitated, and full of conflicting interests and misalignment of priorities.  This fact is a central tenet around which the design of the SAMSET project was formulated.


Cape Town Electricity Department Meeting – 11th November 2014

Xavier Lemaire and Daniel Kerr from UCL, and Yachika Reddy from SEA, recently met with Maurisha Hammer and Zwelethu Zulu, representatives from the Cape Town Municipal Electricity Department’s Electrification Division, to discuss the city’s approach to the electrification of informal settlements, and the challenges facing informal settlement electrification across South Africa.

The Cape Town approach to informal settlement electrification is pioneering compared to the approaches of other countries and metropolitan areas. Informal settlement electrification is under a separate project management procedure to that of formal settlement electrification in the municipality. Formal settlements are project managed by developers, housing associations and “Section 21” companies, which are non-profit housing project developers. Informal settlement electrification is directly project-managed by the Electrification Department, and projects are selected in-situ, i.e. any existing informal settlement has the potential to be electrified under the Council approved Residential Electricity Reticulation policy that requires that  it is a stable settlement (i.e. not transient) and has not been identified for upgrading or relocation . To be considered for electrification, an informal settlement may not be situated

  • in a road or rail reserve or in a servitude, unless otherwise permitted by land owner;
  • in an area below the 1:50 year flood return period contour;
  • in a storm water detention pond; or
  • on unstable land.

This approach is in contrast to other countries’ and cities’ experiences with informal settlement electrification. For example, while cases exist for “slum” electrification in India (notably Chennai and Mumbai) and Thailand (Bangkok), these are processes dependant on the formalisation of property rights for informal dwellers. Part of the rationale behind the Cape Town approach is to do with the constitutional mandate for municipalities in South Africa to provide basic municipal services (electricity, water, sanitation, and refuse management) to all inhabitants of the municipality. Whilst funding constraints prevent the fulfilment of this mandate in many municipalities, Cape Town seems to be succeeding in doing so through this program.

Another major contributor to the success of the program is the community engagement aspect of informal settlement operations. Repeated meetings with community leaders, and notably members of the community themselves, throughout the duration of an electrification project, significantly contribute to investment and participation of the community in the project, nurturing trust in the services and engendering community spirit, cutting down on electricity theft and grid overloading. The opportunity is also used to get cooperation from the community to open up access ways in densely populated areas, not only to facilitate the installation of an electricity reticulation network but also to be maintained as access ways for health emergency services as well as the provision of other basic services such as water and sanitation where possible

The electrification of informal dwellings in the backyards of formal housing developments is a recent initiative. Two pilot projects have been successfully completed in what many regard as a first-of-its-kind program. The main challenge with these projects is the reinforcement of the existing reticulation network serving these properties. In most cases the additional load posed by backyard dwellings makes it necessary to replace the backbone infrastructure. At this stage the programme is restricted to backyard dwellings on properties owned by the City (rental housing) due to legal restrictions around enhancing private properties with public funds.

South African municipalities generate significant income from electricity distribution, and are responsible under their mandate to electrify urban areas, with rural areas under the jurisdiction of ESKOM, the national utility. Given the low rates of return for informal settlement electrification, for less affluent South African municipalities, replicating the Cape Town experience may prove challenging. While the electrification of informal settlements and backyard dwellings may not make financial sense if viewed with too narrow a perspective, the City emphasises wider benefits such as better living conditions, economic stimulation, health and safety, job creation and education opportunities. In view of the challenges faced with the delivery of free formal housing due to growing demand faced with urbanisation and historic spatial planning legacies amongst others in formal housing, informal housing has an important interim role to play and will not disappear overnight. It is with this knowledge that the City Of Cape Town decided more than a decade ago to provide electricity to those living in informal settlements.

In all, the Cape Town experience in informal electrification has useful implications for the SAMSET project. The management of informal electrification projects by the municipality has served to mitigate a number of risks inherent in informal settlement electrification, and this experience -under a number of conditions – could be cross-applied to great effect in other metropolitan areas in developing countries globally, particularly in the Sub-Saharan African context.

“Africa’s Urban Revolution” and African Urban Challenges

Mark Borchers on the launch of a new book, “Africa’s Urban Revolution”, the insights gained from the launch, and their relevance to the SAMSET project.

I was at the launch of the book Africa’s Urban Revolution recently. It has contributions from various authors associated with the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town, and covers a range of topics. Even though it does not have an energy focus, I found both the content of the book (tho I have just read a bit of it so far) and the discussions at the launch very interesting for the work on sustainable urban energy transitions which we are engaged in.

The presenters, Edgar Pieterse (director of the ACC) and Caroline Wanjiku Khato (School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Witwatersrand) emphasised that urbanisation in Africa is an issue of global concern given the pace at which it is occurring and the severe lack of capacity of authorities to meet the associated service demands. This we know, but I found it interesting that mainstream academia knows it too! In addition, African urbanisation is distinct from any other such process elsewhere in the world, often rendering existing approaches to urbanisation issues not useful. In no particular order, the following challenges struck me as potentially relevant:

– In many urban areas a significant proportion of the population regard their homes as elsewhere, and they subsist in the town or city and send remittances back to their homes, where their heart remains. So while they are present in the city, they are not investing in it. It is unclear what this does to the local economy and the tax base and service delivery demands on municipalities.
– In the absence of municipal capacity, informal social and economic systems can be quite strong, for example including land registers and social support systems, often via the church. Given that official capacity is unlikely to change drastically in the medium-term, such ingenuity and creativity may be one of the foundations for sustainable urbanisation in Africa rather than relying on more formal structures and systems.
– The urban agenda is often not high on national government’s priority list, sometimes because opposition parties are often able to first gain support in bigger urban areas, thus not endearing such to the ruling party. In one case, national government apparently effectively set up a department to run the capital city, thus ‘hollowing out’ the politically distinct local government’s power.
– Informality is sometimes regarded as an aberration to be rid of by national government. One presenter described how he was invited to the African Development Bank forum for minister’s in 2006, where urban issues were on the agenda for the first time (!). One Housing Minister, who had recently displaced half a million informal dwellers in their capital city through demolishing their settlements, received a standing ovation when he justified this act on the basis of ‘restoring the dignity’ of the city. So the plight of the poor in informal settlements may not always receive enthusiastic national support.

The above snippets obviously only present a partial picture, but some of them are useful in flagging that different players can have very different perspectives on issues, and we need to be sensitive to these. I know in the South African context all of the above are relevant to a greater or lesser degree in different places.

There’s lots more useful information in the book if you are interested.

Book information: Africa’s Urban Revolution. Edited by Susan Parnell and Edgar Pieterse of the University of Cape Town African Centre for Cities. Published by UCT Press in 2014. ISBN: 978 177582 076 5

Telling Our Own Sustainability Stories

Melusile Ndlovu from SEA offers his thoughts on the importance on relating sustainability and climate change issues to everyday experiences.

Sustainability discussions or agenda (for lack of a better word) can be far removed from many people’s daily realities at times. This dawned on me when I was listening to “educated” colleagues, in a bar, talking about the climate change phenomena. Needless to say my friend, a climate change practitioner, in his attempt to drive the point home kept on referring to polar bears, melting ice caps, and all the humdrum stuff that you see on news channels. However, this seemed far removed from everyone’s day-to-day existence.

I once had an interesting discussion with my grandmother that somehow changed my thinking around sustainability and climate change specifically. Briefly about my granny; she lives deep in rural Zimbabwe, I say deep because if she wants to visit the nearest town she has to walk quite a long distance to get to the “nearest” bus station. That is to catch the only bus that passes through her village once a day very early in the morning around 4am. Our discussion might have started off on what the villagers expected to harvest from their fields. She mourned the shift in seasons that she felt was happening and could affect their crop outputs. You see, rain is very important to them as small-scale subsistence farmers with no access to complex irrigation systems. Her argument was that there is something happening with our climate, we didn’t put a name to “this something”. I tried arguing that what they were experiencing might be one of the normal climatic cycles (a drought year). But who am I to argue with an old lady who has seen more drought years than I? She went on to give me details of the past drought years they had lived through and that what is happening now is different from what she had experienced before. Seeing that I was losing the argument, I asked her if she has been to a climate change workshop in the village. Her response was that she had never been to one and hadn’t been listening to radio discussions on this topic. She was adamant that she knew what she was talking about (that “something”).

My point is that while the topic of climate change and energy in cities is gaining resonance, the question might be how to tell our stories in ways that resonate with a broader populace given that most people in cities have many other things to worry about and climate change is something that might be far removed from them. Municipal officials might feel this is not an important issue to them as they are faced with other service delivery issues. And in some cases this might be seen as an unfunded mandate but the question still remains on how to communicate the sustainability message in a way that resonates with most people. Therefore, the Samset project might have to find hooks within our partner municipalities i.e. identify the most pressing issues within a given locale and try to locate linkages with energy and sustainability.

The Challenges of Low Carbon Urban Development

Mark Borchers from SEA comments on the C40 City Mayors Summit, held in Johannesburg in February.

There are plenty of ideas about low carbon urban development. These tend to circulate in policy documents, reviews and conference presentations. The challenge is to take these ideas and let them take root and gain life in the messy engine rooms of cities where the aircon may have been broken for many months, the average qualification basic, a receptionist painting their nails, the engineer gone and the finance officer unwilling to do anything new. It may take 3 months just to appoint a staff member; up to six months to issue a tender and appoint a contractor. I have heard of instances where money for retrofit of public lighting ended up paying staff salaries; and funds for solar water heating installation could not be spent as there was no engineer to sign off that the houses could structurally bear the load.

Scratch the surface, however, and there is also a wealth of experience, irreplaceable on-ground technical knowledge and institutional memory. I have also experienced, across almost every municipality in South Africa at least, a massive commitment to meet the environmental challenges facing us.

In February city leaders met in Johannesburg for the C40 City Mayors Summit. Political analysts Richard Calland and Jerome van Rooij (‘African cities need to work together’) posed the question: will African cities be able to ‘catch the wave’ of cities being “where it’s at” with regard to sustainable development and green-growth, given their fiscal and political/legal limitations? Not without a major gearing up, they conclude.

SAMSET aims to address this, following a model that has been enormously successful in South Africa to date: taking an sustainable energy/urban development idea, working on it hand in hand with city staff; when it hits a snarl-up, deepening the investigation, exploring a number of possibilities and moving closer to a solution – a programme of real intervention. As the work happens, the finance begins to flow in, the capacity to do the work expands, new offices develop and the institution reconfigures itself. Incremental, but potentially powerful.

Why is Energy an Important Focus in Sustainable Urbanisation?

A blog post from Sustainable Energy Africa’s Mark Borchers:

Urbanisation in Sub-Saharan Africa represents one of the significant global challenges of the day. Urbanisation rates are high and capacity to manage this is often close to non-existent amongst urban governments. The result is usually a steady decline in welfare and inadequate economic development, as well as accelerating environmental degradation. The SAMSET project has chosen to work in the field of sustainable energy transitions as a means of supporting more sustainable urbanization.

Why energy? Energy per se is actually of no interest to anyone, it is the services that energy enables that are important for welfare (cooking, lighting, media, refrigeration etc), for economic activity (motors, electronics, process heat, communications etc), and for mobility (fuel for cars, taxis, trains), amongst others. Without energy, just about everything stops pretty much immediately. It is the life blood of urban areas. While greenhouse gas mitigation is unlikely to be a big motivator for change in most African countries into the medium term, welfare, resource efficiency and environmental degradation are acknowledged as being critically important factors in urban sustainability. Energy has an important role in all of these. Access to adequate and modern energy by the poor is important for household welfare, especially for the poor who often spend a disproportionate amount of time and money in meeting energy needs. Electricity access can support nutrition through access to refrigeration, and education through improved lighting. Energy efficiency is becoming increasingly important for economic health as costs rise and international pressures on global warming emissions increase. Many African countries are having to digest annual electricity price increases of between 20 and 80%! Energy is also often linked to local environmental degradation, for example from charcoal production.

Promoting welfare, resource efficiency and environmental sustainability through their energy dimensions is at the heart of SAMSET, however this demands that we look at just about every aspect of urban development. For example a more efficient future demands that buildings are designed differently – every inefficient ‘glass clad’ office block monstrosity we erect today commits us to an inefficient, expensive future for decades to come. Efficiency requires the use of different technologies, and that urban layout minimizes the need for extensive infrastructure to reduce costs and facilitate access, as well as to facilitate public transport in some form and reduce travel needs. There are many other approaches to consider as well, such as around awareness, capacity, standards and institutional frameworks, to name a few. But of course SAMSET cannot tackle everything, and one of our challenges in the next year is to decide where the most appropriate focus areas are in each partner country – where we can achieve most ‘bang for buck’.