Current energy crisis is an opportunity, says urban planning specialist

23rd May 2008 By: Leandi Kolver - Creamer Media Deputy Editor

The energy crisis that South Africa is experiencing is in many ways a "fantastic opportunity" because it means that cities now have to implement alternative energy projects, says urban planner and author of The New Energy Book for Urban Development in South Africa Sarah Ward.

Energy and environment issues, including climate change, are now much more visible and important in people's lives, and have become key elements of city agendas, says Ward, who specialises in sustainable energy.

"So much has changed in the sustainable energy environment and even people working in the sector haven't realised how much it has really changed," adds Ward.

She adds that many cities are active in developing sustainable energy strategies, however, they are really struggling with implementation of these strategies. There are a few changes which need to happen - firstly, city governments need to recognise that they can and must direct and plan the energy future of their cities, secondly, they need to set up the kind of institutional structures and partnerships that can make innovative policy and can drive implementation and, most importantly, national government must ensure that cities are supported in taking on this new role, by establishing feed-in tariffs, green building regulations, and measures energy efficiency in the national housing programme with budget support.

"Changes are happening - many cities are moving towards institutional changes which will make sustainable energy issues more central to their decision making. They are not just saying anymore, ‘Oh, this is an environmental issue, so the environmental department must deal with it', or ‘Energy must be dealt with by the electricity department'," she says.

For example, Tshwane has set up an interdepartmental sustainable energy task team, Ekurhuleni has an energy strategy committee, the City of Cape Town the only city to establish specific political direction in the form of an Energy for Sustainable Development (ESD) committee headed by a mayoral committee member which will be supported by task teams.

Some cities are undertaking investigations into establishing citylinked energy agencies to drive implementation. Provincial governments are also taking their energy role more seriously, particularly their role in supporting appropriate regional renewable energy generation and projects and giving support to smaller municipalities.

"These kind of changes mean that cities will not just be engaged in crisis planning, but can engage in planning for the long-term energy future of the city.

The Nelson Mandela metropolitan municipality currently has contracts out to implement substantial amounts of green power supply. It has contracted with the Central Energy Fund to supply wind energy, to implement energy efficiency in buildings and to implement a solar water heater programme.

"It is becoming more apparent that South African cities can actually gain economic advantage if they move towards a more renewable energy and energy efficiency route. All investments made in energy efficiency and green building right now are an investment for the future of the country," she says.

She adds that international investors are starting to look for low-carbon cities because they cannot afford to place their investments in cities that do not comply with low-carbon requirements.

"We are changing, and cities can really be leaders in that change. The energy crisis is an opportunity, we can't just sit around saying that Eskom must carry on being the ‘be all and end all'," she concludes.