The transformative role of clean, safe and affordable energy in reducing poverty and inequality, and in improving the quality of life of poor South African households as envisaged in the 1998 Energy White Paper, has failed to materialise to any significant degree, says State institution and research developer Public Affairs Research Institute (Pari) senior researcher Dr Tracy Ledger.
In the second working paper on energy and society, she reveals that the overwhelming reason for this failure is the collapse of energy policy and governance, and the absence of effective oversight of how local municipalities have actually delivered energy services to households.
Ledger uses the term “energy” to indicate what is more accurately a particular subcategory of energy including electricity and its common substitutes.
However, she says there is an important lesson in this governance failure for the broader just transition movement in that complex, multi-faceted socioeconomic problems cannot be solved without careful consideration about the institutional and governance arrangements necessary to ensure that comprehensive planning, action and oversight are all aligned to long-term policy priorities.
As such, Ledger says policymakers have consistently failed to incorporate the developmental aims of the White Paper on energy policy, most notably where these pertain to poor households, small businesses and small farmers. “This shortcoming has been compounded by the failure to oversee the effective implementation of even the mediocre response constituted by the free basic electricity policy.”
She adds that there appears to be little interest in working towards affordable, clean and safe energy access for those who require it the most.
These multiple failures, says Ledger, result in poor households having to instead spend money that they desperately need for food and other essentials on energy, where “they suffer enormous health consequences as a result of being forced to use dirty (polluting) energy sources”.
She points out that this means that poor households lose what few possessions they have (and sometimes their lives) in house fires caused in large part because they are forced to use dangerous, but relatively cost effective forms of energy, such as paraffin.
In addition, this means such households are forced to pay an effective involuntary R5.7-billion in municipal tax each year, reveals Ledger.
UNENDING POVERTY CYCLE
The current situation, she claims, underscores both the extent to which the current operation of the electricity distribution sector in South Africa is actively contributing to poverty and inequality, and the critical importance of changing this situation as part of any energy transition that aims to be just.
Ledger says that considering the entrenched structural factors underpinning the current anti-poor energy distribution system, and the vested interests in maintaining the existing trade-offs between poor households and municipal financial viability, it would be naïve to believe that moving to a decarbonised energy generation system, while maintaining the current distribution system, will make much difference to poor households.
She adds that, although there is an argument that poor households will somehow automatically benefit from the lower energy generation costs generally associated with renewable energy sources, this argument fails to take into account the strong vested interest in using the difference between current and future bulk costs to shore up the collapsing local government balance sheet.
“In the absence of a clear policy commitment to affordable access to sufficient quantities of clean and safe energy for South Africa’s ten-million poor households, a commitment which does not currently exist, very little will really change for those households,” concludes Ledger.