GOING by the very visible excitement on Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson’s demeanour when she told the world about South Africa’s investment in renewable energy, one would be forgiven for f585a515e1534fc3b2c44415bf2940cesuspecting that this awakening to the growing technological innovation in renewable energy would force government to relegate its planned investment in the controversial nuclear new build to the backbenches of its energy strategy.

Looking youthful in a new haircut, Joemat-Pettersson had delegates at the South African International Renewable Energy Conference eating out of her hand when she announced that South Africa would expand its Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP), which has thus far contributed 4 294 GWh to the national grid.

To date, government has paid more than R9.2bn to independent power producers, and more is still to come.

Like Joemat-Pettersson’s new haircut, the mood at the conference is decidedly youthful yet serious, enthusiastic and positive. South Africa is being celebrated as the place to be for the nascent renewable energy sector.

Driven by its desire to ensure that all of Africa benefits from its development and having remembered that it, not Nigeria, is the real economic powerhouse of Africa, South Africa will use its renewable energy development strategy to strengthen ties with other countries in the region.

Cooperation with the Democratic Republic of Congo will benefit from investment in hydropower, intra-Africa cross-border electricity connections will see a boost in government investment, and inter-continental connections, starting with Africa-Europe, will also be prioritised over the next few years.

Also speaking at the conference, Arthouros Zervos, chairperson of the Renewable energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, announced to elated delegates that “The diffusion and uptake of renewable energies globally has outstripped all our expectations”.

He explained that this growth is driven primarily by a changing global policy landscape which encouraged the opening up of new markets for renewable energy and, as a result, a whole new community of investors in solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable sources of energy.

He went on to acknowledge South Africa as “leading the way on the African continent with its Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme and on being the ideal host for such an international gathering”.

This view was buttressed by German Ambassador Walter Lindner’s confirmation earlier that post-Fukushima, Germany would fundamentally change its investment in energy. From the current 30% in renewables, the country aims to source up to 80% of its electric power from renewable energy within the next 35 years.

He made it clear that nuclear energy would be a thing of the past and that fossil fuels, which still provide much of the energy in solar rich Africa, should also be relegated to playing a small role in the energy of the future, in favour of renewables.

Joemat-Petterssen waxed lyrical about South Africa being on a new turnaround strategy, having managed to go for more than a month without load shedding. Surprisingly, and as if she were reading the thoughts of some in the audience, she added, unprompted, that the investment in government’s REIPPPP would be transparent and that no corrupt deals would be countenanced.


The other side of the coin

Contrasted to another event, last week, hosted by the Institute of Security Studies, the renewable energy conference feels like the celebration of a new world order. At the ISS seminar, speakers bemoaned government’s apparent stubbornness to go ahead with its planned investment in nuclear new build despite, they claimed, the updated Integrated Resources Plan indicating that much has changed since the adoption of the 2010 document.

The 2013 update acknowledges the much reduced economic growth down from the anticipated 5.4% annual gross domestic product growth to a paltry 1.3% in the first quarter of 2015. Other issues that were mentioned were fear of massive corruption in the procurement process, the suspicious role of Russia in all of this, incomplete/outdated environmental impact assessments for the targeted sites for nuclear new build, government’s refusal to disclose sources and modelling of funding for the new build, disposal of nuclear waste, etc.

They even evoked nuclear safety, citing the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the inevitable delays and cost over-runs in the construction of new nuclear power plants, the advent of new renewable energy technology and other safer, cheaper, sources, e g hydroelectric power.


Where to from here?

Given the excitement around renewable energy, the billions of dollars going into research and development in related technologies on the one hand and, on the other hand, the new role of South Africa as a catalyst for African revival through renewable energy, what do we want to be known for?

Will the latest updates of the Integrated Resources Plan – currently under way – spur our government into reconsidering the size of its planned investment in nuclear new build, or into ditching it altogether in favour of cheaper renewable energy with shorter construction turnaround times?