Must move to sustainable energy

Eskom load-shedding

THE load-shedding has generated many debates and articles about the dire status of our energy sector.

As municipal electricity project director, Peter Neilson states, “unfortunately, if we lose Eskom, there is no plan if the national grid goes”.

Many others have stressed the dreadful consequence of an Eskom blackout on our system as the country is extremely dependent on Eskom. Water supply and sewage systems will collapse as they depend on electrical pumps.

“Cellphone signal and the whole communication industry will shut down,” states Al’Louise van Deventer, Eskom control centre manager.

How shall we react? Either in a typical knee-jerk response by calling for and planning more coal-fired electricity generation without questioning the structural flaws of the system.

Or shall we recognise that the present coal-based and centralised system is not at all sustainable and keeps us completely at its mercy to a point that we shall be like babies in the rain in the case an Eskom blackout happens?

We can mainly see three reasons for this state of affairs.

First, the government, under pressure from some BBE and large interests, has kept the sector completely dependent on Eskom (despite the fact that a decision was made more than 10 years ago to break the Eskom monopoly and allow other players in the sector).

Second, the government is adamant it will not decentralise and empower local authorities to deal with local issues (same for food security, water and other basic services).

As Lance Greyling mentioned in an article (“Energy overhaul needed”, January 29), “the functioning municipalities need to be empowered and incentivised to play a greater role in building their own energy security”.

But devils are in the details, hence whose “energy security” are we talking about: industries’ or people’s?

Third, we did not bother to research and pilot alternative energy sources to respond to households’ needs for the majority.

The wealthy will (or have already) switched to gas and solar energy.

The very poor who live in the peri-urban areas will remain with candles, paraffin or biomasses.

But the large majority which depends on prepaid metered electricity in urban areas will have a hard time sourcing energy alternatives mainly for cooking as they cannot afford gas and will not access biomass.

Paraffin will be for many the expensive alternative.

These were findings of a broad baseline survey made two years ago in the Seaview townships which informed a research proposal of a cluster of six units around a biodigester that would generate cooking gas from toilet waste and other material. The setup would also test water harvesting and storage systems, PV panels for lighting, solar geysers for hot water to be operated by the residents themselves.

In short it was felt it was urgently needed to research/pilot the local and integrated production of services (at community or individual level) to end the unsustainable dependency on centralised services and empower communities/individuals to respond themselves (like in the past) to their own needs (when and wherever possible). The proposal, made in 2013, did not get any response from either the provincial Human Settlement Department nor from the NMM Municipality.

Yes, this is a drastic move from a centralised bulk services system that is not sustainable and keeps residents mere spectators. But do we have an alternative?

Isn’t it urgent to recognise that the pursuit of new large developments based on bulk service systems is completely unsustainable and ludicrous, especially if we maintain dependency on Eskom electricity, municipal water from faraway places (instead of locally harvested) and large cumbersome and expensive sewage systems.

It is also hoped that the present energy constraint will help us realise that it is morally wrong to siphon out from the network the locally produced wind and solar energy to feed large industries before responding to basic local needs.

It is felt urgent that the government gets its priorities right and finally recognises that the present top-down, centralised and neoliberal system favours only a few and marginalises the majority.

Let’s see if we can consider this Eskom issue as an opportunity to reflect and set (at least) the energy sector on a sustainable path.

-P L Lemercier, Renewable Energy Centre and Transition Network, Port Elizabeth

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