050910 Electricity pylons carry power from Cape Town's Koeberg nuclear power plant July 17, 2009. South Africa will need 20 gigawatts (GW) of new power generation capacity by 2020 and would require double that amount a decade later to meet rising demand, the country's power utility said September 7, 2009. Picture taken July 17, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings (SOUTH AFRICA ENERGY BUSINESS)

Once the brouhaha around who will lead the ANC for the next five years is out of the way, those at Mangaung this week have a bigger dilemma on their hands.

With rising unemployment, an ever widening gap between rich and poor, and mounting social unrest, the ANC is arguably in one of the toughest spots it has been in since coming to power. It has to act decisively to deliver on its promises of a better life for all or risk losing credibility.

One opportunity for decisive action lies in the energy sector, where many of these challenges converge. Key decisions here will have massive impacts on national debt, social equity and job creation in the years to come, to say nothing of environmental consequences.

Access to modern energy services is considered to be a key aspect for improved economic development and reducing inequality. The many economic and social benefits that accrue to humanity in general and the poor in particular, from access to electricity, for example, are covered by a vast body of respected research.

From improved health, as a result of lower air and water pollution as well as access to refrigeration and hot water, to improved quality of life due to less time spent gathering fuel to cook, better access to information and learning (the simple act of being able to study at night) and reduced biodiversity loss, the benefits of electricity are obvious and well-documented.

Yet, in South Africa, despite huge gains in connecting more than 5 million households to the grid since 1994, estimates show that last year almost half that number of households could not afford to pay for electricity.

In the context of growing inequality, urban sprawl and climate change, South Africa’s centralised, fossil fuel-dependent energy supply is inefficient, outdated, and very expensive. In fact, as it stands, the power sector in South Africa is dirty and destructive for people and the planet.

Part of the problem is that the country’s electricity policy roadmap, as laid out in the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2010, is based on historical electricity demand growth predictions, but in the past two years growth in demand has been lower.

Two years after promulgation of the IRP 2010 it has already been shown that its forecast may have been overly optimistic. Eskom reported in November that instead of the 2.9 percent growth it had projected, demand growth over the past two years had only been 1.9 percent. This is due to a combination of factors, from the global recession to suppressed industrial demand due to a shortage of supply, as well as improved energy conservation, and efficiency technologies and behaviours.

Partly this is a good thing; energy conservation and efficiency are the cheapest, and often fastest, way to address a shortage of supply. Yet, the IRP 2010 contained very conservative estimates of the potential for energy efficiency in the country, which means that instead of focusing attention on using energy more wisely, consumers may have to pay for plant that we do not even need to build.

The point is that electricity planning is not an area where you want to be inaccurate. The smallest miscalculation can lead to grave, and very expensive, unintended consequences

. On the other hand, underinvestment could lead to a stagnating economy and even greater hardship for the poor.

Right now the country is poised on the brink of making many expensive capital investment decisions (to build a few large, high risk power stations) that will lock us into dirty and outdated infrastructure. This will translate into more hardship for the poor as Eskom passes on the costs for these investments to consumers.

Given these circumstances, there is an obvious and urgent need to review the electricity demand forecast and the IRP2010.

What’s called for is a more flexible, modular plan. Citizen- and community-owned small-scale embedded generation, own- and co-generation in enterprises and industries can be realised in a modern, clean and just energy future. What’s more, the marginalised and most vulnerable will be among those who could benefit most from the provision of an energy services basket made up of such simple and actionable technologies as ceiling insulation, solar heated water and solar generated electricity.

These scenarios are not pie in the sky, they have been tested by detailed research undertaken by the Electricity Governance Initiative of South Africa (EGI-SA), using a robust modelling tool developed by the UCT’s Energy Research Centre.

The EGI-SA research, which is due to be published early next year, reveals something else about an electricity future that has moved beyond IRP 2010: renewable energy infrastructure creates more short- and long-term jobs than coal and nuclear.

No-one would disagree that South African unemployment figures are a cause for concern. According to census 2011, 29 percent to 40 percent of South Africans of employable age are unemployed, with the majority under 35 years of age.

The situation is urgent and critical and investment in a renewable energy sector could help address this.

What is at stake is the opportunity to create a modern infrastructure for a modern South Africa. And an energy system that is economically, socially and environmentally ethical, durable and resilient in the face of ongoing global change.

Let’s hope that our leaders, whoever they are post Mangaung, are able to heed these and other signals and make more sensible choices for all of the people of this country. Achieving sustainability and a better life for all requires decisions grounded in wisdom and innovation.

Liz McDaid is the climate change and sustainable energy co-ordinator for the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute and Green Connection. Robert Fischer is the renewable energy and energy efficiency consultant at Project 90 by 2030. Yvette Abrahams is a researcher with Gender and Climate Change and Women For Climate Justice SA.