Gauteng-based Palmer Development Consulting (PDC) is a local company striving to improve the quality of life of South Africans by focusing on research and management support in the domestic energy and education sectors.
The company is currently undertaking a R350 000 project, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to investigate the performance of four energy-efficient test houses, built according to RDP standards, in Lady Grey, in the Eastern Cape.
As part of the project, PDC will also promote the idea of constructing energy-efficient RDP houses to government and other stakeholders, such as housing developers.
PDC partner and manager of the company’s domestic energy division Marlett Wentzel says RDP houses are cheap to build, but their running costs are astronomical.
“RDP houses are built of such energy-inefficient materials that it is sometimes warmer outside the house than inside. The costs of keeping these houses heated come out of the earnings of the people who can least afford to pay them – heating can cost poor people up to 66% of their income,” Wentzel says.
She adds that of the 1,5-million houses already built under the RDP since 1994, only 8% incoporate some energy-efficient design principles. A 1998 intergovernmental task team, mandated with formulating and promoting policies for environmentally-sound housing practices, reported that energy-consumption patterns in low-income households in South Africa have emerged as one of the most important factors influencing the national electricity demand and the high levels of air pollution – mainly due to coal used for space heating – experienced in urban areas.
“Air pollution is a killer.
“For every child that dies as a result of air pollution in Europe, 279 children die in South Africa.
“Thus it should be clear that energy-efficient housing design is not a luxury, and has benefits far beyond the most obvious ones,” Wentzel says.
According to her, the local RDP housing programme is ideally positioned to take advantage of energy-efficient measures, some of which can be applied at no cost to government, the developer or consumer.
Some of these measures include positioning the house to make the most use of the sun during winter, making use of paint colours that absorb heat, positioning the windows to face north, ensuring an adequate roof overhang on the northern side of the house, putting in a ceiling and using a concrete slab to absorb heat during the day, which is then released during the night.
According to Wentzel, the best time to make improvements to the basic RDP house is before it has been built.
“However, developers can understandably not be relied on to implement recommendations about energy efficiency, as they are in the business of putting up the most cost-effective structures. “Neither will consumers demand better quality as they are just too happy to get a house,” Wentzel adds.
Advocate for energy-efficient housing and president of the International Solar Energy Society Prof Dieter Holm insists that the government has the power to mandate energy-efficient housing practices, by making it a minimum condition before any housing subsidy is granted.
“Low-cost houses contribute to the poor South African energy performance. “For every rand we earn, we spend 15 cents on cheap energy.
“Switzerland spends only six cents on expensive energy, while the world average is eight cents,” Holm says.
PDC is also involved in other projects aimed at promoting more efficient energy use.
On behalf of the Department of Minerals and Energy’s (DME’s) Low Smoke Fuel initiave, the company in March launched the Basa Njenga Magogo (BNM) – ‘make fire like the granny’ – project in Orange Farm and its surrounding areas in Gauteng. The work is based on successful studies carried out by Nova research organisation in eMbalenhle, a township near Secunda, Free State.
Although these township areas are supplied with electricity, residents predominantly use coal to provide for their heating needs in winter.
The BNM project encourages residents to make fire in a new way, which research has proved causes less air pollution. Wentzel explains that the fire is packed with coal at the bottom, newspaper in the middle, and fine wood on top. When the fire is lit, two additional hands of coal is placed on the fire.
“The fire burns from the top to the bottom, and as a result, a more effective combustion process takes place.
“The fire burns hotter, and particulates and other emissions are reduced by up to 50%.
“As it is more efficient, the method can also reduce a household’s annual expenditure on coal by about 25%,” Wentzel maintains.
If the project proves successful and is accepted by the community, it will be extended to other parts of the country.
Wentzel says the company last month completed another project for the DME, investigating the affordability and accessibility of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for low-income households.
The results of the project indicated that LPG is a desired fuel, but, because it is sold in bulk, unlike paraffin, candles or kerosene, it is perceived as too expensive as it requires a large capital outlay for low-income households.
Customers also found LPG difficult to transport to their homes, as most are reliant on public transport.
Wentzel says PDC has, since 1996, also been involved with a research project on solar cookers.
The company is involved in a team effort to formulate a business plan for the Central Energy Fund that plans to commercialise the solar cookers.
Furthermore, PDC has been appointed by WinRock, a non-governmental organisation based in the US, to compile a report once every three months on the status of renewable energy in the country.
The organisation distributes this information, as well as similar reports compiled in Guatamala, the Honduras, India, Indonesia, Nepal and the Philippines, to US decision-makers.