Energising the future

Energising the future

Africa’s need for energy cannot be denied. Access to energy means development on a continent of massive potential and the unlocking of a brighter future. GAVIN MYERS attended the annual Africa Energy Indaba to see how far we are from this goal.


This year’s Africa Energy Indaba, which took place from February 21 to 23 at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, was recognised by the World Energy Council as its African regional event; forming one of four global regional events, together with Europe, Asia and America. It therefore attracted some leading global, African and local energy experts.

Liz Hart, managing director of the Africa Energy Indaba, says the aim of this year’s conference was to encourage active debate around issues that affect the supply and security of energy in Africa. “Our aim is always to explore tangible and practical solutions to the challenges facing Africa’s energy needs,” she says.

High on the list of issues discussed were renewable technologies, together with energy efficiency for business, liquid fuels, the debate around the continued use of coal for power and sustainability- focused business practices. The conference hosted almost 100 speakers.

Opening the conference, South African minister of energy, Dipuo Peters, covered a broad range of topics, touching on many aspects of the conference proceedings and setting the tone for discussions to come. Opening her speech, the minister said: “Climate change and its threat to humanity must be seen in the context of the dichotomy that also threatens our developmental aspirations. We continue to face serious capacity challenges with regard to electricity.”

Minister Peters was adamant that, to capitalise on future projects that will ensure our energy future, the time to act is now. “History demonstrates that long-term investment decisions taken during the time of economic downturn have the effect of coming in at lower prices compared to times of economic boom,” she said.

The means to this end is government’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which was concluded in March 2010 following 18 months of public engagement on the options that South Africans prefer for their future energy mix. The different technology options will balance electricity supply and demand over the next 20 years. However, financing the plan in the current financial climate is a challenge, and from this point of view, Peters admitted that government cannot do it without the support of the international community and the private sector. “Unless there is collective focus on building capacity for regional and continental planning and harmonisation of regulatory frameworks, the continent’s development will remain a pipe dream.

“We remain committed to ensuring that there is space for private sector investment in the electricity generation sector in our country,” she said, adding that it is critical for independent power producers (IPPs) to be brought on stream to complement Eskom. The Department of Energy’s directive is for IPPs to contribute 30 percent of new generation capacity by 2030.

In motivating her points, the minister said: “Positive impacts in education, health and social cohesion have been the mainstay of electrification efforts the world over. We need to continue with the electrification effort until we attain universal access. Access to modern energy carriers will reduce the time our children spend gathering firewood, fetching water and preparing a meal instead of attending school and studying. It is therefore imperative that we assist the African continent in achieving the objectives set out by the Millennium Development Goals.”

However, Peters acknowledged that the increased demand for electrification cannot be met without a negative impact on the environment, as coal is still the main source of energy in many parts of the world – including South Africa. The dilemma remains: as a developing nation, we need electricity to drive social and economic change, yet 92 percent of our electricity is generated by carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas-creating coal.

Peters was quick to point out the need for renewable energy. “We recognise and acknowledge that renewable energy also has the potential to contribute immensely. We need to leverage the available technologies for solar, wind, biomass and biogas that could contribute significantly in scaling up access to energy for Africa’s people and businesses while simultaneously putting the continent on a green and low-carbon development path.

“South Africa, just like other countries on this continent, is well endowed with renewable energy resources such as solar and wind,” she said. “However, we still have the huge task of developing them to their full potential.”

Touching on nuclear power, the minister noted that the government’s Nuclear Energy Policy has been designed to integrate nuclear energy into the electricity generation mix, stabilising the grid while contributing to the mitigation of greenhouse gases.

In the short-term, though, the minister was adamant that energy efficiency – balancing electricity supply and demand – is a must. She was excited to point out that energy efficiency technologies have substantial job creation potential.

In closing the Indaba, conference chair Brian Statham said: “We often forget – and it was brought up in a number of sessions – that electricity is only a subset of energy. We so often think that when we are talking about energy, that we’re just talking about electricity – but you’re only touching the surface.” Statham warned that it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that, by having a conversation about electricity, the whole spectrum is covered.

“If you’re talking about energy, you are still not addressing the full spectrum of society’s needs; energy only has validity if we’re talking about it in the context of people’s social needs for health, education, general wellbeing, self-esteem and so on.”

SHEQ Management will feature some of these other energy topics in forthcoming editions.

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