A German think tank believes lack of political will could be among the reasons South Africa has not embraced renewable energy to solve its energy crisis despite its potential.
The South African government, which is in favour of nuclear energy to power the country, is still nursing a bloodied nose after the Western Cape High Court judgment in April declaring nuclear agreements with Russia, the US and South Korea unlawful and unconstitutional and setting them aside.
Critics have said nuclear build costs could run up to R1 trillion, money taxpayers could ill afford in these harsh economic times.
Markus Steigenberger, deputy executive director of Agora Energiewende ("energy transition"), an economic think tank, criticised Eskom for not signing the 37 outstanding agreements with independent power producers (IPPs) for the supply of renewable energy.
He had just returned to Berlin from South Africa, where he gave presentations at workshops in Johannesburg and Pretoria last week at the invitation of the Centre for Environmental Rights in Cape Town.
In an interview with Independent Media in Berlin, Steigenberger said he had gone to South Africa to get a “better view” of the government’s energy policy and to share Germany’s energy policy with stakeholders. For Eskom not to have signed the IPPs was “very harmful to the renewable energy industry”, he said.
Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown has said renewable energy is expensive, costing R2.14 per kilowatt hour to produce. Eskom would reportedly only be able to charge consumers about 84 cents per kilowatt hour, and the power utility had indicated it would only sign the IPPs when the cost of energy was 77c per kilowatt hour or less.
But according to Steigenberge, renewable energy is “very, very cheap” compared to “dangerous” nuclear energy. He blamed the “current political situation for the stalemate”.
“There is a lot of discussion now about whether South Africa should deploy more renewable energy or whether there should be more nuclear and coal. That discussion is very harmful to the renewable energy industry,” he said.
“I was told some German company operating in the renewable energy sector is considering closing its office in South Africa. Others too are contemplating pulling out of South Africa.”
Steigenberger said the industry was fairly new, but faced devastating challenges.
Germany is regarded as the world’s first major renewable energy economy, with 1.5 solar photovoltaic systems, 23000 wind turbines and 350000 people employed in the sector.
“One of the things South Africa could learn from Germany is that you can operate a power system with a very high share of wind and solar. Eskom and the SA government are afraid of having too much weather-dependent energy on their system.
"They think this will put stability at risk and result in blackouts,” Steigenberger said. “What we have learnt in Germany, Denmark, Spain and Portugal is you can have a very stable power system with wind and solar. The challenge we are facing now is expanding our grids. We have little land in Germany. In South Africa you don’t have land shortages.”
Mkentane is on a fellowship with the International Journalists’ Programme.