From the editor's desk: Come for the sunshine, stay for the loot

June 2022 News

Brett van den Bosch, Editor

Last year’s announcement by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy that it was raising the registration threshold for self-generating electricity providers from 1 MW to 100 MW was widely lauded as a crack in the dam wall that would release a flood of pent-up renewable energy investment.

The signs are positive that this relaxing of regulations is indeed bearing fruit: the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA) announced on 7 June that it had approved the issuance of registration certificates to 16 new power generation facilities, all of which were received during April and processed within 19 working days. All 16 use renewable energy (15 are solar-powered and one is wind-powered). For the first quarter of the 2022 calendar year, a total of 54 generation facilities with a total capacity of 29 148 MW were approved, representing a total investment of roughly R452 million.

This investment is not coming solely from within our own borders, however. An adage passed down to us through the ages advises against looking a gift horse in the mouth, but as the ancient Greeks would attest, the wiser approach is to inspect it thoroughly from head to toe, lest it be of the Trojan variety. There are many countries around the world that have fully developed strategies to invest in the renewable energy sector in sub-Saharan Africa, and are already doing so. While we shouldn’t thumb our noses at foreign investment, European countries in particular have a long and bloody history of ‘investing’ in Africa by means of exploitation and colonisation. And now it seems the whole world wants a piece of our renewable energy action.

It only takes a bit of googling to find detailed analyses of the sub-Saharan market, including governmental policy recommendations such as those put forward in the report ‘Scaling China’s Green Energy Investment in sub-Saharan Africa: Challenges and Prospects’. When I see our (mostly) beautiful weather described in said report as a “resource endowment factor” it chills me to the bone.

This foreign investment drive comes through both public and private sector channels, each of which has its own strings attached. Per the aforementioned report, “African governments should also encourage Chinese partners to be more actively involved in various policy learning, sectoral planning and capacity-building effort.”. This could be interpreted as encouraging diplomatic meddling, which South Africa is particularly vulnerable to at the moment due to our many socio-economic challenges, and decades of mismanagement at Eskom, as well as pressure due to the fact that we’re lagging behind the targets put forth in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

As for the public sector, let us not forget the lessons we should have learned from the downfall of our domestic textiles industry. Opening up the market to all and sundry only serves to undermine our economy, and our society due to resulting job losses, in the long term.

It does not and should not sit comfortably to allow foreign powers so much leverage over us – leverage they can and will apply to serve their own interests. Yes, we need immediate solutions to make up for decades of mismanagement at Eskom. No, we don’t have the economic wherewithal to do it ourselves. But if we keep taking the easy way out, the threat looms large that the wealthy countries of the world will stand proudly bathing in our abundant sunlight while we thank them for letting us lounge in the shade they cast.


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