There is undoubtedly awareness among South Africans that renewable energy is the way to go. But how feasible is it for the ordinary householder to switch to new, greener technology?
“In a country such as South Africa, where solar energy is abundant, the sustainability of its usage through solar geysers and solar panels is unquestioned,” says Dr Roula Inglesi-Lotz, senior lecturer at the Department of Economics of the University of Pretoria and headline speaker at the upcoming Clean Power Africa conference and exhibition from 14 to 15 May in Cape Town.

She adds that solar power can be generated equally well in remote and urban areas because it need not be connected to the national grid.
“In private dwellings, investment in solar geysers and panels pays off only after a few years therefore cost effectiveness has to be calculated in the long term.  Households cannot depend entirely on electricity from the sun – energy cannot be stored in high volumes – which means that energy can only be generated and used when there is daylight,” says Dr Inglesi-Lotz.
Since 2009, the South African government has committed to providing support to the residential and commercial sectors wanting to install solar water heaters (SWH).
According to the Department of Energy Affairs, a number of commercial banks, insurance companies, and benevolent donors are driving various SWH initiatives in different parts of the country. The mass rollout of SWHs is slow but gaining momentum. From April to 31 December 2010, 26 768 rebate-funded SWHs were installed.
It is unclear to what extent the South African economy has benefited from renewable energy because, according to Inglesi-Lotz, there has not yet been an orchestrated effort to evaluate the benefits.
“Ninety percent of electricity generation is from coal burning sources. This means there have not yet been major changes in the energy supply mix. The unsustainability of non-traditional alternative methods of energy generation, as well as the current high costs, have prevented investors and policy makers from preferring them.”
Inglesi-Lotz says in most cases, the cost of changing from traditional forms to alternative sources is too high for the average householder.
“Not only in a monetary sense, but also in the cost in time. In general the lack of specialised skills is a crucial element keeping the country growing at a faster rate. There is a particular lack of skilled people who can install solar heaters and geysers and specialised services push up the costs. Universities and other institutions do offer specialisation in the development of skills capacity regarding renewable energies.”
However, she believes that things will certainly change in future.
“Electricity costs are constantly rising and we are moving to a future in which the costs of installation and implementation of renewable energies will be comparable to older technologies. Demand for electricity from coal-burning generation will decrease and as a result, consumers will turn to alternatives for their energy needs.”
Dr Inglesi-Lotz’s presentation at Clean Power Africa will be entitled Renewable Energy Usage in South Africa: A Comparison.