Transition to net zero offers major opportunities for green growth

Caledon Wind Energy, a commercial wind farm near Caledon in the Western Cape. Picture: File

Caledon Wind Energy, a commercial wind farm near Caledon in the Western Cape. Picture: File

Published Jan 30, 2024


By Andries Malherbe

The fact that 145 countries, covering close to 90% of global emissions, have announced or are considering net-zero targets by 2050, which is what will be required to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, is good news for our planet.

However, to achieve this, countries will have to completely transform how they produce and consume energy. More specifically, how to replace coal, gas and oil-fired powered energy with clean, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.

This raises questions regarding what pace will be required for various climate technologies to scale up in order to play their part in a new net-zero energy mix.

A recent analysis by global consultancy McKinsey has revealed that that even the more mature technologies, such as wind and solar power, would need to scale up by a factor of six to 14 times higher with other, less advanced technologies, needing to scale at an even greater rate. For example, the supply of green hydrogen, which is produced by renewables, would need to grow by a factor of 200 times.

The McKinsey analysis also recognises that this required trajectory offers a significant growth opportunity to build green businesses, estimating that the growing demand for net-zero offerings could generate $9 trillion (R169 trillion) to $12 trillion in annual sales by 2030 alone.

In fact “green growth” is a key recommendation of Professor Ricardo Hausmann’s Harvard Growth Lab in their recent study of what is needed to grow the South African economy. According to Hausmann this can be achieved in two ways:

“First, the world will need to electrify anything that can be electrified. Good examples are electric vehicles for transportation and electric arc furnaces for producing and recycling steel and making alloys. Second, electricity must be made in green ways, leveraging solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear technologies.”

Green business opportunities exist across a range of climate technologies, including the electric vehicle (EV) sector, which is recognised as critical to the net-zero transition.

In the US, it is predicted that by 2030, EVs will account for 53% of new passenger car sales. But to power this increase in EVs on the road, there needs to be considerable investment in charging infrastructure, with an estimated 28 million ports required by the end of the decade.

A similar challenge exists in South Africa, where just more than 700 000 EVs will be driving on our roads by 2030, jumping to about 11.1 million by 2050. This growth will see a major increase in demand for electricity to power these cars, adding an extra 3.8 terawatts (TW) of demand by the end of the decade and 61TW by 2050.

When viewed against the context of South Africa’s electricity supply still being overwhelmingly generated by dirty coal-fired power plants, which is likely to still be the case in 2030 and beyond, a critical question emerges: will the growth of coal-powered EVs in our country really be an environmental game-changer?

Furthermore, our current grid, managed by Eskom, wasn’t designed to manage the demands imposed by the mass charging of EVs. Indeed, questions are being asked about whether the grids in even the most developed countries will be able to handle the demands of a mass transition to EVs.

It is clear that to enable green growth in the EV space, we need new climate technologies that are able to offer 100% renewable energy, off-grid, solutions at scale.

Fortunately, South Africa already has the technology and the know-how to achieve this: at the end of last year, Zero Carbon Charge began construction on the first of a national network of 120 off-grid, sustainable charging stations, with charging infrastructure powered by photovoltaic solar panels.

These charging stations will offer 720 DC ultra-fast charge points for EVs, plus 240 AC charge points for plug-in hybrids, which means drivers will be able to charge an EV in about 20 minutes. In order to mitigate EV owners’ “range anxiety”, this planned network of charging stations will be 150km apart, with all of them due for completion in September 2025.

In this way we hope to contribute to the major scaling up of climate technologies that will be required to meet South Africa’s net-zero targets by 2050. At the same time, we are also creating opportunities through partnerships with farmers and landowners who will lease sites to us in exchange for a percentage of turnover and a contribution to local education and skills development.

It is clear that if we want to achieve real “green growth” in our country, any plan rolled out by the government to encourage the transition to EVs must include a focus on the development of a charging network that is based on renewables.

Andries Malherbe is a co-founder of Zero Carbon Charge.