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Spring 2023

Shane Lee, "Load Shedding in South Africa: How Solar Panel Deployment Can Alleviate Race-Based Inequalities" [Article]

Introduction

     After my travels to post-apartheid South Africa, I left with more questions than answers. While my time in South Africa was educational, uplifting, and enlightening, the number of native Black South Africans still struggling is shocking. Inequality in South Africa is still very high, with 1% of the population owning 50% of the wealth.1 This wealth surplus is in white Afrikaner communities, who held complete power during apartheid. These communities still have access to much of the same capital and resources they had during apartheid. In comparison, native South Africans do not have the same capital, wealth, and opportunities for success. Unemployment in South Africa exacerbates wealth inequality, with native South Africans having a harder time finding a job than their Afrikaner counterparts. Native Black South Africans are consistently left behind while others with money are uplifted. These differences are based upon race, as Black South Africans are continually neglected and excluded from advancement in society.
     While these issues are persistent and need to be solved, the most troubling and devastating issue people in South Africa face is load shedding and its disruptions to everyday life, which entails rotationally shutting down electricity to prevent grid failure. Every day in South Africa electricity turns off twice a day for two hours - once early in the day, and once later in the afternoon. For those with generators, load shedding does not disrupt daily life. But for those without the resources to buy and maintain a generator, load shedding interrupts life multiple times a day for extended periods. While load shedding affects all South Africans, those most affected are native Black South Africans in rural and township areas.
     For Black South Africans in rural areas and townships, load shedding brings catastrophic outcomes to all aspects of life. Examples include an increase in car crashes because traffic lights turn off, limited access to resources which thus increases crime, and since stovetops and refrigerators become idle people can’t cook.2 With the consistency of load shedding, solar energy can potentially be an alternative to the current energy system. Currently businesses (such as the large shopping chain Pick n Pay) and those with higher incomes use solar panels.3 Progress exists, but barriers to entry remain.
     However, recent developments in South Africa could enable change for everyone. From policy solutions to private business innovations, solar panel usage to solve load shedding is a feasible solution. Lower-income Black South Africans remain excluded from these developments. For the future development of solar panels in South Africa, the development of private solar projects and installation for higher-income individuals is a step in the right direction. But future solar projects need to give attention to Black South Africans that primarily live in rural areas and townships.
     In this paper, I will first discuss why load shedding happens and how the government has played a role. Then I will show how solar panels have been used as a solution to mitigate load shedding from the private sector through giving examples of usage in the hospitality industry.
     Next, I will discuss how rural areas and townships with predominantly Black South African populations have been most affected by load shedding. I will then explain how recent solar developments have enabled these communities to take control of their energy and reduce inequality. My “collaboration” section will illustrate how government friction with solar panel implementation can lead to progress, but also shows a lack of communication between major political parties and bias towards higher income individuals having first access. Finally, I will discuss other barriers to solar panel deployment along with the future of solar energy in South Africa.

Load Shedding Background

     In South Africa, a lack of fossil energy supply cannot meet the growing energy demand.4 By taking the South African government national grid offline every day through load shedding, the national energy supplier Eskom is attempting to avoid a complete system collapse. Load shedding is rotational energy blackouts that occur daily across South Africa to prevent an all-out grid failure in the country (Greenpeace).5 Doing so equally disperses everyday obstacles and ideally preserves energy for everyone.6 However, with the government owned energy utility Eskom at the helm, load shedding has intensified due to poor management and corruption. Eskom has accumulated vast debt in the past ten plus years. The government has given them bailouts to fix their issues, but these solutions have not worked.7 In addition to their financial issues, Eskom has been accused of corruption through improperly and illegally using funds for money laundering and fraud activities.8
     Government issues have been playing a role in load shedding, and politicians have been called on to make changes. In 2019, the nation state’s ANC (African National Congress) President Cyril Ramaphosa announced he planned to break Eskom into three parts to fix some of the issues associated with load shedding and debt. However, this splitting of Eskom will make no difference in the short term and has taken years to commence.9 In addition, President Ramaphosa has publicly recognized that electricity is a human right for everyone and is essential to human development.10 Statements like these suggest that the President and the ANC want change, but change has not been shown. With Eskom and the politicians, corruption in the government is public knowledge.11 Persistent corruption, misallocation of electricity, and inequality erodes the people’s trust in the national government.
     The current issue of load shedding and lack of government trust with energy has left people feeling helpless in South Africa. When traveling in South Africa, I felt this same helplessness as well, struggling to find ways to incorporate solutions to the numerous problems with energy. Thankfully, on the last night we stayed in South Africa, my research team and I visited a hotel called Road Lodge in Edenvale, Johannesburg with solar panels on its roof. The hotel managers discussed how solar panels were used during load shedding to combat electricity blackouts. With the aid of a generator, solar panels were turned on during load shedding to power the hotel when the power went out. Thus, the hotel wasn’t affected during load shedding and can always operate.12 Since the hotel did not have many panels, they only used them as a substitute. This energy source substitution was a strong case of solar panels being used to combat load shedding.
     Further research confirmed that solar was regularly used in place of a generator or any fossil fuel-powered energy source. High-end resorts tend to have the capital to install solar panels.13 Working in coordination with Eskom, Peermont Resorts have been able to install multiple solar energy plants for their different hotels and casinos to reduce their carbon footprint. While recognizing that South Africa is still largely dependent on oil and coal for electricity, Peermont Resorts is stepping up as a leader in the private business industry to make progress.14 With these new plants, Peermont can have a lower carbon footprint and grow business through their projects.
     Hotels’ use of solar energy is unsurprising given the vast amount of energy they demand. Compared to similarly sized neighborhoods, hotels use up to 50% more energy. With consistent load shedding existing all over South Africa, being able to generate electricity is always necessary.15 In addition, with more public pressure and attention to making drastic climate change decisions, having solar panels on hotel roofs is also a strong marketing tactic. Hotels with solar panels can attract more environmentally conscious customers and guests because of the changes they are making.16 While a change in the hotel industry is welcome, those who struggle the most are still left out.

Rural and Township Development

     As an Environmental Justice researcher in South Africa, I was able to have an in-depth interview with Linda, a school teacher in Durban South Africa. Through our conversations over WhatsApp, I learned more about the consistent load shedding issues facing Black South Africans. Linda explained how load shedding has disrupted Black South Africans’ lives, and how energy inequality acts along racial lines.17 Linda specified how Black South Africans in townships and rural areas are explicitly left out of energy development projects, and how long-term economic progress is limited.18 As a Black South African, Linda was able to give me a first- hand account of how load shedding limits generational wealth and growth because of systemic racism in South Africa. Linda explained that solar panel development is possible but currently is inadequate and non-existent in poor Black communities because of multiple barriers.19
     Solar panel development occurs in higher-income white spaces but does not occur in Black, lower-income, township, and rural areas. Townships and rural areas face the brunt of load shedding issues because of a lack of resources to combat electricity deficiency. Unlike higher-income places, rural and township areas are not alerted when periods of load shedding are about to occur.20 Electricity cuts also last longer in rural areas and townships with a predominantly Black population.21 The lack of backup energy systems, solar panel infrastructure, and government influence amplify the consequences of load shedding in the township and rural areas.
     Given how devastating load shedding is in rural communities and townships, solar panel implementation in these communities would be life changing.22 Solar panels have the power to generate energy during times of load shedding while also reducing expenses for power production. 23 Currently, about 15.6% of households in South Africa lack electricity despite electricity being considered a human right in South Africa.24 The problem is worse in the rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal, where fewer than 50% of households have electricity.25 Something must change with how electricity is viewed and developed in South Africa for marginalized groups. Some communities have overcome barriers to implementation and access by collaborating with outside investors.
    Partnership and donations from EKOenergy, Siemenpuu Foundation, and African Conservation Trust, has provided 130 households with solar lighting in two communities in rural KwaZulu Natal.26 This provides lighting through periods of load shedding and harsh weather conditions year-round. Households can exchange expired batteries (which are then recycled) with fresh ones.27 Projects like this ensure that households can always have a secure supply of electricity. Providing consistent electricity to residents allows community members to fight poverty and inequality.
     While the solar light program is helpful, it is not as effective as a solar panel that will provide a significant amount of energy. Simply, more solar farm programs are needed for townships and rural areas. That is why the recent solar developments in Matsila village in Limpopo are so encouraging. Traditional leader Chief Livhuwani Matsila is working to implement these changes in Matsila through community development initiatives.28 Before switching to solar, the local village farm ran into consistent production issues because of load shedding, leading to a lack of economic development.29 But after installing solar plants on the farm with the help of investors, the farm can run 24/7 without relying on Eskom’s grid. As a result of the farm’s success, Chief Livhuwani and his royal family have turned Matsila into a fully-fledged eco-village, where the whole community is benefiting from the sun.30 This project has increased productivity and prosperity for the village and serves as an example of what other rural areas and townships can do in South Africa. The issue is now increasing investment along with increased government and business coordination for Black South Africans.

Private and Community Investment

   
 The development of Solar Projects for townships and rural areas is a strong starting point, but more needs to be done to combat inequities. To truly re-engineer these communities, governments and businesses must take advantage of the abundant possible solar energy supply. The overall solar potential in South Africa is strong, with the country receiving significant amounts of sunshine with a low amount of rainfall.31 Out of all the renewable sources in South Africa, solar is the highest, with a nationwide average of 2,500 hours of sunshine per year and 8-10 hours per day.32 In addition, with the continued erratic energy supply caused by load shedding, off-grid solar systems are growing.33 This development is specifically aiding the township and rural areas I have been mentioning, with the advancement of projects such as the Solar Home Systems (SHS). SHS works to electrify basic dwellings for lighting, television, and phone charging. Over 96,000 have been installed since 2015.34
     With the high solar potential in South Africa, overall solar feasibility is high. Multiple provinces in South Africa have high solar irradiation, and the overall ability of solar in South Africa is untapped.35 With these benefits and opportunities, increased effort from outside parties must occur. In 2022, Amazon started running a large solar project in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa.36 Amazon’s project is estimated to avoid 25,000 tons of carbon emissions annually, equal to about 5,400 traveling cars in South Africa.37 In coordination with Eskom and government agencies, Amazon is showing how large corporate entities can thrive using solar during load shedding.
     This project will bring transformational change to the economy of the Northern Cape. The site developed 167 jobs through the construction, maintenance, operation, and security needed for the data centers.38 Through the development of these jobs ensure consistent economic growth for the area. In addition, Amazon is aware of the struggles of Black South Africans, and the solar farm has made efforts to reduce this inequality. The solar plant is majority-owned by Black women and operated by a South African-owned company.39 Amazon is demonstrating that people of color who are most affected by energy inequality should be at the forefront of efforts to reduce it. Amazon’s project is a template for businesses to enact change and reduce load shedding.
     Amazon’s solar project in the Northern Cape could potentially ignite additional change for solar in South Africa. If successful, Amazon could alleviate load shedding for their business while benefiting the region with renewables. However, Amazon should push towards developing projects in more townships and rural Areas of South Africa that are not in the Northern Cape. Compared to other provinces of South Africa, the Northern Cape embodies strong apartheid characteristics that work to exclude Black South Africans.40 The area has a higher white population than other provinces. The primary language is Afrikaans, the colonizer language forced upon Black South Africans during apartheid.41 It is troubling that Amazon has decided to start its solar project in the most predominantly white region of South Africa, where Black South Africans are more spaced out.42

Democratic Alliance

     Long-term implementation depends on how much private and public sector support the industry will receive. Like load shedding, solar panel usage differs on racial and class lines. For big businesses such as Makro and Pick n Pay, solar panel usage has increased.43 People who can pay for the costs of installation, upkeep, and batteries, have installed solar panels.44 But with the severe wealth inequality in South Africa, those who most need solar panels are unable to access them because of cost barriers. However, change can happen with more government support from political parties all over South Africa. Unfortunately, Black lower-income South Africans have not received solar panel support from their own party, the ANC. 
     Combatting this issue, the Democratic Alliance (DA) has set up a template for solar panel support in South Africa. The DA is a centrist liberal political party in South Africa that is the main opposition party to the ANC.45 For the past decade, the DA has been arguing against the monopoly energy system run by Eskom.46 Currently, the DA is publicly stating that the archaic nature of Eskom has only made load shedding worse and that change needs to come about.47 In their plan, they advocate for a competitive energy market, where the buyer can work to determine what is the best service and price for them.48 With consistent load shedding and a surplus of solar energy from local businesses and households, in Cape Town the DA plans to buy solar from them to use during load shedding.49 While possibly illegal due to the state-natured control of electricity, a change such as this could lead to positive developments with solar in South Africa.
     These actions by the DA in Cape Town serve as a template for change in solar energy in South Africa. The DA has recognized the problem with Eskom and load shedding, and they are working to take matters into their own hands to demand change with renewables. The DA would also set a precedent by controlling the right to purchase their own electricity. If their actions hold up legally, more localities around South Africa will be able to use private companies and parties to develop more solar panel projects.50 Eskom will no longer limit innovation through total control of solar projects in their grid. Instead, independent parties can work to distribute electricity with less Eskom involvement.51 If applied, this plan by the DA would enable rural areas and townships to have better access to solar energy.
     The interests of Black South Africans need to be put at the forefront to repair harm from apartheid. The DA lacks concern for people outside of Cape Town who don’t have consistent electricity. The DA’s base and interests do not align with the Black South Africans in rural areas and townships, so more communication and work need to occur within the major political parties. As change continues post-apartheid, solar energy development remedies the current racial inequities. It is unfair that as solar development grows, Black South Africans are not receiving the benefits of changes. Black South Africans continue to suffer from the biggest energy inequities.
     
Collaboration

     President Cyril Ramaphosa has called for increased solar deployment. On July 25th, 2022, the President addressed the nation concerning the current energy crisis affecting South Africa. He called for a significant increase in rooftop solar from Eskom to combat load shedding. Since Eskom has now been tasked with prioritizing solar since the speech, hopefully results will arrive quickly.52 Eskom is working to develop a pricing structure for residential solar and commercial projects in their grid.53 Whatever surplus power is generated by residential areas and businesses can then be sold back to Eskom for other’s power needs.54 South Africa has high solar potential that is not being used effectively for electricity, so harnessing this power is key to South Africa’s future and alleviating load shedding.55
     Comprehensive collaboration with political parties and businesses is beginning. Eskom’s pricing structure is very similar to the system the DA is working to adopt in Cape Town.56 However, the President’s plan was unclear on solving significant barriers that prevent the implementation of solar. Across South Africa, municipalities have differing installation costs and regulations which make it harder for Black South Africans in townships and rural areas to build solar panels. In addition, rooftop solar requires updated roofs. Instead of proposing rooftop solar in these areas, community solar projects that allow individuals to plug into a grid that will provide energy are more accessible for people. The President and political parties need to develop plans for marginalized communities.
     With the abundant year-round solar existing in South Africa, developing more solar PV plants is necessary.57 Currently solar plants are limited to regions outside of townships and rural areas, and with high capital and maintenance costs along with dependency on coal, solar progress has significant barriers.58 That is why collaboration between Eskom, the DA, the ANC, and businesses is integral to this transition. All parties are receptive and ready for change. The ANC, as the party in power, must initiate. Through the pricing structure President Ramaphosa has discussed, businesses will be instrumental in increasing solar and decreasing the reliance on Eskom. The ANC must now work with the DA to increase solar access across South Africa. These collaborative efforts will eradicate Eskom’s monopoly and inspire a collaborative system that will aid all South Africans.

Conclusion

     In conclusion, fossil energy supply cannot meet the energy demand in South Africa. Along with a lack of access for low-income people and a lack of complete government support, South Africa is still very dependent on fossil fuels. Currently, South Africa generates about 77% of its primary energy needs from coal.59 The state-owned energy supplier Eskom and the need for widespread change to energy practices in South Africa makes deploying widespread solar usage a daunting task. However, recent positive developments have occurred in the ANC. President Ramaphosa announced that he supports the rapid development of rooftop solar to combat load shedding.60 While his plan has been criticized for being vague, it is still a strong development and a step in the right direction. Long-term, the hope is that the continued use of solar panels will lead to greater energy accessibility in rural areas and townships where the need is highest. Continued solar panel development that includes lower-income rural areas and townships will be instrumental to a prosperous clean energy future in South Africa.
 

Interested in Learning More?
Click here to listen to an interview with the author!

 

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