Can the Energy Efficiency Programme be an obstacle to renewable energy transition? South Africa’s climate change mitigation and adaptation objectives

May 1st, 2020

Energy is fundamental for the economic development of any country, and it should, therefore, be considered in economic development strategies. A number of developing countries are without energy services, making access to energy paramount, as development is not possible without energy services. As a developing country, South Africa (SA) is energy intensive and has a huge reliance on conventional sources of energy to drive its development goals, with its major energy source being indigenous coal. Coal is associated with a number of environmental effects, such as air pollution from the release of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. This makes coal unsustainable if continued unabated reliance on it intensifies. It is, therefore, important that measures to reduce energy intensity and reliance on conventional sources of energy are developed.

Energy efficiency framework and renewable energy transition 

South Africa has a rather complex fragmented climate change framework to address energy efficiency and climate change. The framework is administered by different governmental departments, with different objectives and/or purposes. It is apparent that energy efficiency is lucrative in meeting sustainable development needs as it can directly and indirectly mitigate the effects of atmospheric pollution, which is linked with the burning of fossil fuels to generate energy. Policy and law are drivers of energy efficiency across the globe, including specific decision-making drivers such as a need for energy security, environmental conservation and mitigation of climate change. The drivers that give policy direction to energy efficiency differ between countries. Developing countries’ policies are shaped by a need for more energy supply infrastructure and more efficient use of existing capacities, with less interest in mitigation of greenhouse gases.

South African energy efficiency was introduced through a range of policies, strategies and laws. A White Paper on the Energy Policy of the Republic of South Africa was published in 1998, its main purpose was to provide SA with wider access to energy sources, while ensuring that the environmental impact of energy conversions and use are minimised in as far as possible. This was an initiative towards energy efficiency, as it was one of the cross-cutting issues identified in the policy. In 2004, a White Paper on the Renewable Energy Policy of the Republic of South Africa supplemented the White Paper on Energy Policy as a pledge of government’s support to the development, demonstration and implementation of renewable energy sources for both small and large scale applications. Following which, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy published the National Energy Efficiency Strategy in 2005 in response to the 1998 White Paper on Energy Policy. The objectives of the efficiency strategy were to encourage the development of the sustainable energy sector and efficient use of energy, thereby minimising undesirable impacts of energy usage on health and the environment, and to contribute towards securing affordable energy for all.

South Africa developed energy strategies, which aimed to improve energy efficiency and ensuring secured energy supply, therefore enabling, inter alia, the country to achieve its economic development goals. The Energy Security Master Plan – Electricity 2007 – 2025 was also developed to address energy requirements by providing low cost, high quality energy inputs to the industrial, mining and other sectors to achieve environmental sustainability of natural resources. Furthermore, laws were enacted to put the visions of the energy efficiency strategies into effect. These include the Electricity Regulation Act 4 of 2006 and National Energy Act 34 of 2008, whose objectives include promoting the diverse, efficient, effective and sustainable development of energy sources. Apart from energy efficiency sought by the abovementioned Acts, these laws also opened room for the development of renewable energy sources, which encompass wind, hydro, biomass, landfill gas and solar energy. It can be argued that this suggests that the energy efficiency programme supports a renewable energy transition, with wind and solar sources identified as potentially preferred energy sources.

Challenges to renewable energy and energy efficiency

I submit that poor implementation of the climate change and energy law regulations seem to be hindering the progress towards the realisation of the energy efficiency goals. For example, s 19(d) of the National Energy Act provides for the minister to make regulations regarding, inter alia, minimum contributions to national energy supply from renewable energy sources. No regulations under this Act have been enacted to date. South Africa is in a state of paradox in achieving sustainable development through moving towards renewable and sustainable energy production, while improving energy efficiency. The generation of energy is still hugely reliant on conventional sources of energy (namely, coal), reliance on renewable energy remains uncertain. The South African Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme was designed to facilitate investment in renewable energy generation in the private sector. The Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity 2010 – 2030 is also aimed at achieving sustainable development objectives nationally, while simultaneously responding to climate change. It can be argued that environmental law is more advanced/established than energy law, it can be a meaningful tool in driving towards renewable energy. The misalignment between SA’s energy laws and environmental laws proves challenging, with a lack of synergy between the two, although they both are driven toward the same goals.

Best avenues for climate change mitigation and adaptation 

Climate change can be mitigated through a move from conventional sources of energy to renewable sources of energy, and through the improvement of energy efficiency. Energy efficiency can be improved through demand, side management and energy conservation awareness programmes that will translate to a behavioural change in consumers on energy consumption (Shirene A Rosenberg and Harald Winkler ‘Policy review and analysis: Energy efficiency strategy for the Republic of South Africa’ (2011) 22.4 Journal of Energy in Southern Africa 67). Local government can be the best conduit in promoting small-scale renewable energy projects that if successful, would later be implemented at national level (Tumai Murombo and Willemien du Plessis ‘Energy efficiency: New strategies for improving South African Energy Laws’ IUCN Academy of Environmental Law).

Programmes aimed at improving energy efficiency and combating climate change have been successfully implemented in some South African municipalities. For example, the Ethekwini Municipality established an Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department that plans for the mitigation and adaptation to the impact of climate change. It has, as such, developed –

  • a Sustainable Energy Theme Report (aimed at generating 40% of Durban’s electricity demand from renewable energy; improving energy efficiency in building, industrial and manufacturing operations; and ensuring access by all citizens to suitable energy forms in order to meet their needs); and
  • Climate Change Adaptation Planning (to respond to environmental challenges faced by the world today).

The City of Cape Town has an action plan for energy and climate change that seeks to ensure energy security by, inter alia, introducing low carbon initiatives to energy efficiency, renewable energy and public transport. The City of Cape Town further developed a Climate Change Policy in 2017 to become a city, which is climate resilient, resource efficient, with low carbon emissions towards environmental sustainability and socio-economic development.

On the other hand, Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality adopted an Integrated Environmental Policy that provides for efficient energy use, low carbon practices, and encourages the use of technology with minimal release of greenhouse gases, including reducing emissions from vehicles utilised by the municipality. Furthermore, the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality developed a Climate Change and Green Economy Action Plan aiming to secure a climate resilient city with the objective to include a share of 50% growth in green economy business and 25% share of energy from renewable energy sources by 2025.


I argue that an energy efficiency programme is not an obstacle and/or barrier to a renewable energy transition. As stated above, I hold the view that local municipality initiatives prove to be the best avenue in promoting the objectives of the SA’s climate change mitigation and adaptation. There is also a need for the alignment of energy policies and environmental management laws to ensure a balance in energy supply and climate change mitigation plans. I submit that the South African energy sector is rooted within the system that promoted innovation system centred on fossil fuels and did not allow room for independent supply of energy, but monopolised to only two main energy providers, namely, Eskom (electricity) and Sasol (fuel), therefore, development in this regard is needed. South Africa needs a shift of investments in innovation from conventional sources of energy to renewable energy sources, as well as the promotion of independent power producers (IPP’s) in order to realise sustainable development. In order to encourage more renewables into SA’s energy mix, government needs to create a legislative, social and economic environment that is conducive for easy entry into the renewable energy market for IPP’s. There is a marked increase in interest in generation capacity from renewables, which clearly indicates the intention to move away from heavy dependence on fossil fuel.  South Africa shall integrate more renewables into its energy mix as is proven by the success of the South African Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme. The laws in my view, possibly lack objectivity and are not insurmountable.

Meshack Fhatuwani Netshithuthuni LLB (Unisa) LLM Masters in Commercial law (UJ) Cert in Climate Change and Energy law Cert in Prospecting and Mining law Cert in Water law (Wits) Cert in Environmental law (UP) Cert in Pension Funds law (Unisa) is a legal practitioner at the Competition Commission of South Africa in Pretoria.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2020 (May) DR 37.