The initiative by government to electrify the households of previously disadvantaged South Africans is generally regarded as one of the significant achievements of the democratic era. However, it is also widely accepted that it cannot be ‘business as usual’ if the country is to achieve the goal of universal access to modern energy for all South Africans by 2025 – a target that will require a combination of grid and nongrid technologies to be met.
Eskom senior GM Andrew Etzinger says access to electricity remains an imperative for economic development, but adds that there are budgetary and human-resource constraints to electrifying “all South Africans at one go”.
Nevertheless, the State-owned power utility, together with some municipalities and the Department of Energy (DoE), remains committed to achieving universal access as outlined by government, he stresses.
During the DoE stakeholders and media briefing session in September last year, Energy Minister Dikobe Ben Martins emphasised the importance of the target for government, while lauding the Integrated National Electrification Programme (INEP), which has ensured far greater access to electricity, as one of the most successful programmes in the energy sector over the past 20 years.
This sentiment is supported by Statistics South Africa’s (Stats SA’s) research on household access to electricity. Its ‘General Household Survey Series Volume V Energy 2002–2012’ report shows that, in 1992, access to grid electricity was limited to about three-million households, equating to about 36% of the population.
With the introduction of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which emphasised access to affordable energy, this figure began improving. A target was set to connect 450 000 households each year, with Eskom connecting 300 000 households and municipalities connecting 150 000 households each year during the first phase – from 1994 to 1999 – of the programme. In the event, the target was exceeded and more than 2.5-million households were electrified during this time, taking the percentage of households with electricity from about 36% to 66% nationally in 1999 – 46% in rural areas and 80% in urban areas.
Stats SA’s latest survey shows that the momentum has been sustained since the turn of the century, with the percentage of households with access to electricity increasing from 77.1% to 85.3% between 2002 and 2012.
Despite this large increase, however, 11%, or 1.45-million, of households did not have access to electricity in 2012, while another 3.6%, or 578 005, accessed electricity informally or illegally.
In other words, the goal of universal access has not been attained and has become more difficult to attain, with the so-called low- hanging fruit having been plucked.
Nevertheless, there is growing pressure from communities for services to be extended and enhanced. This is reflected both in the surge in recent power-related service delivery protests and in political statements, arguably epitomised by the African National Congress’s election manifesto, which promises that an additional 1.6-million homes will be connected to the electricity grid over the next five years.
But achieving the aspiration is likely to be more complex and costlier than has been the case with access-extension projects that have unfolded over the past two decades.
The Stats SA report highlights that one of biggest challenges with regard to the electrification policy is that it is cheaper to provide electricity in urban areas and in denser settlements – and these areas have been electrified. The rural areas and more widely dispersed households that remain require longer distribution lines, which are generally not a viable option financially.
Further, the electrification of households in informal settlements is equally problematic, notes the report, as settling often occurs unplanned and the occupied areas are often unsuitable for habitation, owing to the instability of the supply of electricity, the danger of flooding, legal challenges or other health and environmental concerns.
“As long as poor households in informal areas remain without electricity, they will continue to miss out on free basic electricity (FBE) and free basic alternative energy,” the report highlights.
In 2003, government initiated the FBE policy, which aims to find ways through which government can bring about relief for poor households that have access to electricity and ensure ideal socioeconomic benefits from the INEP.
Since 2005, households that have received FBE totalled around 25%. However, the report points out that access through FBE is uneven by province and by urban-rural divide. As a result, about one-tenth of households in Limpopo reported receiving FBE, compared to 42.7% of households in the Western Cape.
DoE energy programmes and projects deputy director-general Dr Wolsey Barnard notes that newly built houses were also meant to be electrified by the restructured electricity distribution industry (EDI). But owing to serious inefficiencies in the EDI over the last ten years, the INEP had to address not only backlogs but also newly built houses and informal households.
“As a result, government is subsidising the bulk of all electrification projects – which include newly built houses and those forming part of the backlog. Government subsidises not only the grid connections but also the backbone infrastructure to ensure electrification takes place,” he adds.
By 2014, the INEP had set its sights on electrifying 92% of formal households; however, challenges, such as funding, resulted in the INEP electrifying only 86% of all formal households.
Barnard points out that more funding was needed for the connections and the escalating electrification costs, highlighting that limited funding and the high rate at which formal and informal houses were being added each year seriously threaten the goal of providing universal access to electricity in the country.
The electricity distribution industry is also facing the difficulty of illegal connections, which are very common in South Africa for several reasons. A culture of nonpayment and recent increases in the price of electricity will further increase the number of illegal connections.
However, more than R243-million in revenue has been recovered by Eskom since the launch of Operation Khanyisa, a national partnership campaign initiated in 2010 to fight electricity theft and related energy losses in the country. This figure includes more than R200-million recovered from the large power-user sector and more than R43-million in tamper fines issued from 2010 to 2013.
“Other successes of the campaign during its first three years include the physical audits of 2.35-million meters and electrical supply points, 76 931 disconnections, 112 arrests and 60 court cases, with subsequent convictions in some cases and convictions,” says one of the Eskom energy losses management programme and Operation Khanyisa national sponsors, Maboe Maphaka.
With initiatives such as Operation Khanyisa, fighting electricity theft and the current INEP business model by government, Etzinger highlights, the current business model and the energy mix of grid and nongrid electricity in areas where access is difficult will ensure universal access.
Eskom uses criteria based on the municipal Integrated Development Plan (IDP) to determine if customers should be connected to the grid. According to the plan, a municipality has the ultimate responsibility to guide Eskom as to which homes must be electrified, based on the relevant municipal IDP.
The nongrid part of the INEP is designed to temporarily provide remote rural communities with access to limited electricity until grid connections are possible. Solar home systems, comprising a photovoltaic (PV) panel, a charge controller, wiring and outlets for small appliances, a battery and four energy efficient compact fluorescent lights, are being provided for households as part of the nongrid electrification programme.
Of the 12.8-million households that are electrified in South Africa, about 68 000, mostly in the rural areas, are being supplied by basic PV solar power. These solar home systems enable consumers to use a black and white television and good-quality lighting for four hours and a portable radio for ten hours, as well as to charge cellphones. It does not cater for thermal energy needs such as cooking, heating, ironing and refrigeration.
“Six service providers are involved in the nongrid part of the INEP, where there is a roll-out of solar PV systems, mostly in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo,” notes Barnard.
He concludes that, although about three-million households are currently without metered electricity supply, the implementing agencies, Eskom and some municipalities are delivering at a high level, to the extent that a new connection is delivered every 70 seconds every working day in South Africa. The DoE is hoping that this can be improved to every 60 seconds during the current financial year.
This is all in line with the New Household Electrification Strategy, which was approved by Cabinet in June 2013 to increase the electrification rate when it became clear that the 2014 universal-access target, defined as 97% of all households, could not be reached.
The new deadline is 2025 and will employ both grid – for about 90% of connections – and an improved nongrid model for the balance. The commitment, therefore, remains, but concerns linger over financing, planning and implementation.