The integrated national electrification programme (INEP) of the Department of Energy (DoE) is set to change in scope and character as it comes closer to realising its initial goals of electrifying most communities in South Africa that were not connected to the national grid.
Energy Deputy Minister Thembisile Majola said in her Budget Vote speech in May that the programme – which receives a substantial portion of the DoE’s budget – would look to include a variety of energy sources as part of an energy transition, with sustainability as a core value and serving as a unifying framework to meet economic, social and environmental goals.
DoE acting deputy director-general of programmes and projects Jacob Mbele highlights that the INEP objective of achieving universal access is “a moving target” when taking into account urbanisation and economic migration, which have led to new unconnected communities.
“The programme has gone a long way towards reaching people and providing a basic level of access to electricity. In areas where it is difficult for the grid to reach, solar home systems have been installed – the programme has evolved over the years,” he says.
More than 7.4-million households have been connected to the grid and more than 160 307 have been connected through nongrid technology from 1994 to March 2018.
There is an opportunity to expand the INEP, especially in terms of solar home systems and alternative energy sources, says Mbele.
The solar home system programme was originally intended to serve as a temporary measure to provide basic lighting and power for a radio or television and solar-heated water before the households were connected to the grid. Communities are increasingly receptive to this as a permanent renewable-energy solution, he explains.
“The programme provides a basic solar home system, but people often expand the photovoltaic (PV) solar rooftop systems using their own resources, resulting in the need to ensure that the DoE deploys modular PV systems, allowing households to expand them.
“We foresee an integrated or comprehensive household energy programme that could include the solar water heaters, solar PV systems and possibly gas for cooking.”
Further, integrated energy centres – municipal depots that distribute a variety of liquid fuels and liquefied petroleum gas to rural communities – can serve as hubs to support greater diversity of energy in permanent nongrid solutions, says Mbele.
“There is an opportunity to turn the integrated energy centres into proper energy hubs, providing technical advice for munici- palities and end-users, as well training for the youth and technicians,” he says.
“We have partnered with various oil companies and municipalities to establish integrated energy centres across the country to enhance access to and affordability of energy in rural areas, as well as create jobs, alleviate poverty and stimulate the rural economy,” Majola confirmed in May.
Electrification must go beyond access and must focus on affordability and sustainability of access, adds Mbele.
With decreasing solar panel and battery costs and the prospect of more capacity for the same cost, the solar home system can be a permanent sustainable solution for rural communities, increasingly making such systems viable standalone solutions for non-grid communities, he notes.
South African Local Government Association (Salga) energy and electricity head Nhlanhla Ngidi says the existing electrification programmes and policies are rigid and must become more flexible as technology advances, which changes the opportunities available to local municipalities and communities.
“Government spends millions on solar water heaters, energy efficiency and nongrid electrification on an annual basis. These programmes provide an opportunity for localisation and job creation,” said Majola.
Local content, manufacturing and installations in these programmes could go a long way towards developing small and medium-size enterprises.
While there were challenges, some progress has been made to ensure increased local content for solar water heaters, while similar initiatives would be rolled out for energy efficiency and nongrid electrification to ensure technology localisation and job creation for the previously marginalised, mainly youth and women, she added.
“We have already seen demand for integrated solutions that leverage a variety of energy sources,” confirms Ngidi.
Consequently, there is a need for training and skills development within these off-grid communities to support nongrid solutions and electrification initiatives.
However, this skills development requirement presents significant opportunities to develop supportive energy-related small and microenterprises, but only if the policy is flexible and can accommodate these changes in energy technology and electrification, he adds.
“It is acknowledged globally that the creation of a conducive environment for small businesses to operate presents good opportunities and platforms for people to participate in the economies of their respective countries. In this regard, we, as the department, are also presenting opportunities to our people to participate in the economy,” said Majola.
The department has initiated a learner- focused programme aimed at enabling disadvantaged learners from township and rural schools to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as well as exposing these learners to various career opportunities that can be pursued within the energy sector.
The need to ensure that local communities and enterprises directly benefit from the installation and maintenance of solar and gas systems remains key to the long-term success of nongrid electrification and the broader energy transition, emphasises Ngidi.
“Empowerment is the core theme that came out of the Salga Energy Summit (held in March) to alleviate the constraints of energy or energy policies and programmes, deepen the developmental impact on communities and citizens, and enable municipalities to diversify their revenue and service bases away from a reliance on resold electricity.”
Deepening Developmental Impacts
“The provision of energy services is not dependent on any one fuel or technology. The energy transition must consider the economic and social impact. It must be just,” said Majola.
The resilience of energy systems and services across South Africa will depend on effective communication with communities, adds Ngidi, but emphasises: “This cannot be top-down communication, but a continuous engagement with communities and municipalities about their needs and expectations.
“This will be key for the meaningful evolution of the INEP and to improve the developmental outcomes of electrification programmes. This requires skills development and skills transfer into municipalities and communities.”
Ngidi calls this approach “customer centricity”, and notes that the integrated deployment of infrastructure, including broadband telecommunications services, will support more effective and cost-effective service delivery.
However, he says municipalities and local authorities must be ready to leverage new ways of interacting with their constituencies, such as egovernment services and direct telecommunications channels for citizens.
Therefore, local municipalities and authorities must significantly improve public participation by their communities in formulating their demands, participating in development programmes and caring for the infrastructure in their communities, notes Ngidi.
Meanwhile, Mbele highlights the need for localisation and for communities to benefit from infrastructure development and related activities, such as the installation, maintenance and management of local energy systems.
A hierarchy of needs can inform the roll-out of the various programmes, from improving safety by reducing the use of kerosene and paraffin through the deployment of nongrid systems to improving the access citizens have to consumer appliances, to providing small-scale energy to support small and microenterprises in rural and nongrid communities.
The INEP has broadly followed these patterns over time, he adds.
Deepening the impact of the INEP, as well as other government poverty-alleviation and developmental programmes, is related to improving the quality of life for citizens, he states.
However, project management and planning skills are crucial requirements for municipalities to be able to seize the opportunities for local participation, and to support local enterprise development, either in energy-related industries or using the available energy sources to support commerce and industry, says Mbele.
“Municipalities are currently under huge financial pressure, largely as a result of poor revenue collection and [inappropriate] tariff designs. The enhanced revenue management projects, piloted in six municipalities, have been designed to assist municipalities with this challenge,” the Deputy Minister noted.
Mbele highlights that teams of engineers and technical experts are often deployed to assist in the planning and roll-out of energy systems, and these remain crucial to bridging the gaps in skills necessary for effective deployment.
There is a need for local centres that bring in skills and serve as hubs, confirms Ngidi, but care must be taken to ensure that intergovernmental communication channels improved so that all participants know their roles, responsibilities and with which entity the ownership or stewardship of these energy hubs resides as time passes.
“By placing citizens at the top of the agenda, we can improve the resilience, effectiveness and sustainability of these electrification and developmental programmes,” he concludes.