The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was established by the United Nations in 2015, and it comprises 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that member countries must work together to accomplish by 2030. SDG 7 recognizes that connectivity to electricity is critical to reducing extreme poverty and asks for “everyone to have affordable, dependable, sustainable, and modern energy.” South Africa is one country where SDG 7 must be prioritized, with 18.7% of the population living below the poverty line in 2014 and around 15% of the population living without access to power in 2019. Even among people who do have a connection to electricity, however, difficulties of reliability and pricing limit their use. Renewable energy technologies (RETs), such as solar and wind, are expected to play a vital role in reducing these barriers to electricity access, according to the country. South Africa’s renewable energy has the potential to alter a country plagued by blackouts.

From a surplus of electricity to rolling blackouts

During the 1980s and 1990s, Eskom, South Africa’s state utility, had a hefty reserve margin (the power capacity in excess of demand). This reserve margin peaked between 1991 and 1993 when it was about 40%. While a reserve buffer is always preferable to electricity shortages, it is more cost-effective to operate and maintain fewer plants that are closer to their maximum capacity. As a result, in the second part of the 1990s, South Africa began dismantling certain units.

Eskom was able to accelerate its efforts to give universal access to energy as a result of the savings realized through lowering plant operational expenses. Electricity penetration in households increased from 61 percent to 83 percent between 2001 and 2011. This was a significant step forward in a country that sorely needed to improve social equity. However, in late 2007, due to mismanagement of electrical capacity, demand outstripped supply, resulting in severe outages that lasted well into 2008. For a while, things would return to normal, but purposely produced rolling blackouts reappeared in 2013, and have been a frequent occurrence since then. This “load shedding” has a significant impact on the economy of South Africa and people’s lives.

 

Renewable Energy Has Arrived at a Crossroads

The harsh fact in 2007 that Eskom’s power generating capacity couldn’t keep up with the country’s energy demands ended up being a benefit for the country’s adoption of RETs. By that time, RETs were becoming more economical, and environmental concerns were becoming more prominent; officials began to believe that RETs could and should serve a larger role in South Africa’s energy mix.

In 2008, renewable energy accounted for only 0.63 percent of South Africa’s total electricity generation. By 2020, this number had climbed to 6.25 percent, with fossil-fuel sources still accounting for 88.6 percent of power generation, notably coal. South Africa aims to cut coal use to “less than 60%” of its energy mix by 2030 while increasing renewables to 25%.

The Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP), which was launched in 2011, is helping to advance renewable energy in South Africa. The government uses the program to identify renewable energy initiatives in stages before soliciting bids from the private sector (both local and international) to finish them. By ensuring a minimum amount of revenue from the projects, the government draws a large number of bidders. The program, which just finished its fifth phase of bidding decisions, has been a huge success.

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