Ina Opperman

By Ina Opperman

Business Journalist

SA’s energy challenges due to poor leadership, not technology

Renewable energy could help the country with its power issues, but leadership seems to be the problem.

South Africa and the rest of Africa are facing serious challenges in the renewable energy sector and leadership is the reason, not technology.

Africa has 600 million people without access to energy, while sitting on over a terawatt of renewable energy. This must change, but leadership is needed to take charge of the situation.

“South Africa has huge political problems when it comes to the energy sector. In my view, politicians have inertia and do not want to make decisions. There is communication misalignment, where you get a public utility on the one hand with massive, massive problems and on the other hand executives coming out and saying we are investing R200 billion in renewables and then you get a minister coming out and saying no, no, no, no, we are going in a slightly different direction,” prof. Lwazi Ngubevana, director of the African Energy Leadership Centre at the Wits Business School, says.

He was part of a panel at the MDA Collective Wisdom Conference, discussing renewable energy projects in Southern Africa.

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Communication misalignment in renewable energy

“We are going a slightly different direction, we need to protect all, we need to do ABC. Now that is problematic. There is policy in place, but the communication is not aligned and then this is creating a little uncertainty in terms of investment and we are not going to see the projects get off the ground. We have had long delays.”

Ngubevana said again, those are leadership issues and what we need is people in charge of making things happen.

“I think it is a great shame as we of course have massive resources. This talk comes at a rather auspicious time. It could not really have come at a better time.”

Though it is a difficult time for us as a country, Ngubevana also thinks that the continent faces serious challenges in the energy sector. He believes that this challenge actually solely lies in leadership.

“I really think that it is a leadership issue. It is not a technology issue. I do not think it is a resource issue either, in terms of human capital as we have plenty of that. Of course, we do need to develop leaders to drive our sector as a whole.”

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Renewable energy needed to combat climate change

He also referred to the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that shows that we need to do something drastic to address climate change and our current scenario or planning. However, it will take time and the question is where the money will come from.

Ngubevana said this is where he sees an opportunity.

“There is a lot of money to be made with these projects. There is a lot of money to be made in technology, but it is really going to take huge and bold steps for us to start moving into a new scenario.”

He believes that the country’s planning is simply not in line with where it needs to be.

“We need to change this and we are going to need huge investment of easily $500 billion between 2020 and 2024 just for eastern southern Africa.”

This will also bring opportunities for development and job creation.

Our lives depend on energy and Ngubevana cited the example of having to check his load shedding schedule before he can do an online lecture on energy challenges in Southern Africa after midnight. He thought of not giving the lecture when he saw that his area was scheduled for load shedding and just lighting a candle and saying these are the challenges, we can talk because we do not have power.

“Again, for me the whole issue really is about leadership. On Wednesday we saw what I call stance, with government and political leadership coming out making all sorts of noises, saying we will keep the lights on for the elections. Really? Is that really a concern to keep the lights on just for election day and discounting what happens after that? At what price are we keeping the lights on?”

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Do not repeat the same mistakes

He asked if we were not running these plans to the ground, just so they could keep the lights on – the same thing that we accused other people of doing two years ago.

“What are we doing? This is not even planning for going forward. You keep them on for two or three days and then more breakdowns.

“But back to what I say so, if you look at southern Africa, so where are these renewable energy projects?”

He pointed out that South Africa has a procurement programme for renewable energy that has been hailed across the world, but he has a slightly different view in terms of its success.

According to the International Renewable Energy Association (Irena), the government has almost nine gigawatts of installed capacity, but only six gigawatts have been contracted.

“Projects have been built, but we have not put them online, we have not contracted them.

“Why? Because leadership has been dragging its feet for five years in getting big window to finalise it. Try and connect to the grid. Good luck. I do not want it to be message of doom, but this is a real problem, this is why we need leadership that is going to act and change the situation. Unfortunately, at this point, I think we actually do not have that leadership.”

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Too many competing interests in renewable energy

Ngubevana says there are too many competing interests, but we cannot hope to grow the economy if we cannot hope to provide power and move leadership. He also believes the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) must be updated from the 2019 version, as it does not take into account what happened in the last year.

“Goodness knows how much longer we are going to take before we update the IRP and we cannot act outside of it, because that is our map, our guidebook for our electricity at least as a country.

“We have an energy crisis right now with lights being switched off. We have decided we have an emergency procurement programme, we need to embark on looking for 2,000 megawatts. What has happened to that? I can tell you now in two years’ time we are still going to be talking about the emergency procurement programme. Now tell me where the emergency is.”

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