Protest at a nuclear energy congress in South Africa

Energy is well recognized to be the lifeline of all human activities and the world we live in today has undoubtedly been shaped by our energy system. 

However, the very energy system that we have become so dependent on is increasingly becoming less sustainable.

Our dependence on fossil fuel-powered energy generation is stealing our future and dooming us to climate disaster after climate disaster.

There is no question that the future requires change through the development and adaption of renewable sources of energy. However, rather than recognising the challenge and necessity of finding a new path enabling people to define a future that satisfies their energy needs, the South African government and Eskom remains determined to capitalise on coal-powered energy. 

South African Energy Sector – The Context For Renewables

Greenpeace volunteers raise a wind turbine on the beach at dawn in Durban, South Africa

South Africa is one of the most energy-intensive economies in the world, with around 90 per cent of its electricity generated using coal as a primary resource.

As such, the South African energy system remains on a highly unsustainable path, and the potential for long-term growth and prosperity of the economy is plagued. 

The alternative to energy derived from burning fossil fuels, is renewable energy. The good news is that renewable energy technology has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, becoming the cheapest form of energy. The bad news is that it is still met with political resistance by those with vested interests in the fossil fuel industry. This is disappointing considering the country’s wealth of natural resources required for clean energy generation.

The transition to a green economy, and subsequently a more sustainable energy future, is achievable and realistic. However, national policies aimed at promoting the deployment of renewable energy have been plagued by inconsistencies, and a lack of coordination. These policies, generally, have proven relatively ineffective at increasing the country’s renewable energy capacity to its full potential.

Awareness of renewable energy development in South Africa was initiated in November 2003, when the South African government introduced the White Paper on Renewable Energy. In this paper, the South African government committed to achieving a target of 10 000 GW, or a 4 per cent share of energy produced from renewable energy sources by 2013. Namely biomass, wind, solar radiation, and small-scale hydropower.

South Africa as one of the signatories of the Kyoto Protocol committed itself to reducing emissions by 34% in 2020 below the projected emissions level. The emissions level from all sources in South Africa as a whole is currently estimated at about 500 000 000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per annum.

To make matters even worse, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. It is therefore no coincidence that it also has one of the most energy-intensive economies in the world relying on coal and has the dubious distinction of being one of the top global greenhouse gas emitters. 

Renewable sources of energy as a solution to climate change

Climate human banner in South Africa

Renewable energy sources are an attractive solution to address the challenges that South Africa faces in terms of its energy crisis, that is, load shedding, energy price volatility and climate change. However, despite the obvious solution that is renewable energy, the uptake remains low.

In order to address the challenge of sustainability, while still achieving energy security and socio-economic development, South Africa needs to transform its energy systems from conventional fossil fuel-fired technologies to a broader portfolio of low-carbon technologies.

Renewable energy is essential to realize long-term climate change targets, to prevent global temperatures from rising by more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, as agreed in the Paris agreement.

The dissemination of renewable energy faces a variety of barriers

1. Resource intermittency and inadequacy as an excuse from the government

The fossil fuel industry uses renewable intermittency as an excuse to direct investment away from renewable energy technologies, because they want to convince the public that these technologies are not reliable. However, intermittent does not mean unreliable. The key to getting a constant supply of electricity from renewable energy is to have a mix of sources working in a hybrid system. 

By having a mix of sources which are spread over a wide area, we ensure there will always be a supply of energy.

As the sun goes down, so wind production generally increases, and as the winds drop in one region they pick up in another.

Renewable energy sources such as biomass and biogas can be used to support the requirements of the end-user in addition to wind and solar.

2. Lack of political commitment to renewable energy technology adoption in South Africa

A Greenpeace activist leans out of the police vehicle at the Oogies police station with a banner after being arrested for climbing a crane inside the Kusile power plant. Picture: Shayne Robinson

Lack of clear regulations, misalignment in state policies, and non-existent government support are the main barriers to investment in renewable energy. 

It is advocated that there is a need for clarity from the government to ensure that there is an alignment of the political objective and its various instruments.

In the absence of this clarity, it is right to assume that investment in renewable energy technologies will remain low. The lack of government support for off-grid renewable energy applications, be it through incentives or political support of financing schemes like energy service contracting and subsidies, is also another barrier.

3. Market structure in South Africa continues to be a barrier to wider renewable energy adoption

  • The lack of transformation in the electricity sector is because the key players are more interested in protecting their vested interests in perpetuating the status quo that relies on coal.
  • Eskom, as the monopoly electricity provider, has used its power and dominance to influence and protect the electricity market’s features that suit its core competencies.
  • The fact that Eskom has a monopolistic market share, and their share of producing electricity from renewable sources is tiny does even more harm the renewable energy’s case.In addition, the situation doesn’t look any brighter in the foreseeable future, with Eskom planning to inject massive capital investments into an expansion of the country’s energy infrastructure.

As long as Eskom’s dominance in the electricity sector remains unchanged and it continues to influence regulations, then IPPs (Independent Power Producer) will find it difficult to enter the market and supply significant amounts of clean energy.

4. The lack of adequate government policies

Raising a Wind Turbine in Durban

Barriers to the adoption of renewable energy can be addressed through a conducive policy environment, an enabling and supportive regulatory framework, and suitable institutional measures.

The policy design has to address the specific barriers that exist with each resistance faced and be relevant to the country’s context and technology.

The establishment of a reliable framework with a clear vision and long-term policy objectives regarding renewable energy capacities to be installed in the future are important in supporting electricity generation from renewable energy sources. 

Political support is a key enabler because it ensures that all regulations are simple and the bureaucratic processes are coordinated to facilitate investment in renewable energy.

4. Little to no investment in research and development of renewable energy

Research within the energy sector is dominated by Eskom and Sasol, with both companies reliant on coal as the source of energy. 

Traditionally, these companies have dominated sponsorship of academic research to the extent that limited investment was made in research into renewable energy technology, and thus limited progress was made on developing renewable energy to fit into South Africa’s national grid.


For individual South African households, investing in rooftop solar is expensive which locks many of us into dependence on Eskom, but the price of solar and wind electricity per kilowatt hour is cheaper than any other form of electricity. This alone should be reason enough to push the government and Eskom into adding renewable energy capabilities into the grid.

South African Electricity Sector

Action at Kusile Power Station in Africa

The South African electricity sector is dominated by Eskom, a state-owned enterprise that produces virtually all (95%) of the electricity consumed in the country.

Eskom is a vertically integrated monopoly that also owns and operates the national transmission grid and 60% of the distribution network. 

The balance of the distribution network is owned by municipalities, which essentially means that the South African electricity sector is owned, controlled, and operated by the government.  

Because electricity forms the foundation of any stable economy, the electricity sector is typically subjected to political intervention by the government as a way of ensuring stability within the economy. 

The Energy Crisis In South Africa Explained: Coal locks South Africa into load shedding.

South Africa’s energy scene is facing a triple crisis. First of all, there is a crisis of supply: the existing and foreseeable capacity cannot assure the supply of energy under all circumstances which remains to be the main cause of load shedding. 

Secondly, there is the climate crisis: the present tendencies of consumption and production of energy lead inevitably to the emission of greenhouse gases which would amount, in 2050, to five times more than what the IPCC – a consensus of the world’s scientists – considers acceptable. 

And finally, there is the economic crisis: the spectacular increase in and the volatility of energy prices contribute to a slowing down of economic activity and drive the poorest among us into desperate circumstances.

South Africa’s energy crisis has an impact on our daily lives and manifests as regular load shedding. This is a clear testament to the urgent need to move away from coal-generated electricity to renewables.

Take the pledge and commit to supporting a faster renewable energy uptake in South Africa.

The Role Of Renewable Energy Projects In Solving South Africa’s Energy Crisis

Considering the current load-shedding situation and bearing in mind the reality that the South African power grid will probably remain under severe pressure for years to come, the option of using alternative sources of energy to generate electricity has never been needed more.

Given that South Africa is rich in renewable energy resources, sourcing and producing clean energy within the country can allow South Africa to reclaim its energy independence whilst creating jobs and protecting the environment.

There’s an urgent need to mitigate the adverse environmental impacts of fossil fuel usage so as to enhance national energy security.

Renewable energy generation (particularly grid-connected) is necessary. There’s also a necessity to apply policy support instruments to promote the dissemination of these technologies. In South Africa, the current political environment is not very conducive to the development of a sustainable renewable energy industry.

The just transition to renewable energy is a move away from fossil resources in favor of cleaner, non-depletable sources of energy, like wind and solar.

These energy sources are characterized by their low cost, rapid growth, and enormous potential. 

Given the urgency of climate change, those who now hold decision-making power – in the state system and capital – must be persuaded of the necessity for change. 

Corporations must stop proclaiming themselves as ‘part of the solution’ while using greenwashing strategies which are then met with dubious success but instead invest in a truly just future. We are playing our part to realize this just future and you can join us today!

Renewable energy sources

SAIREC Renewable Energy Banners Action in Cape Town

Renewable energy is defined as energy that is derived from sources that replenish themselves and thus are essentially inexhaustible. Renewable energy sources include energy derived from solar, wind, hydropower, biomass, and geothermal sources.

Renewable energy is the preferred future energy source for the world as it addresses two key risks facing the continued use of conventional fossil fuel sources.

Firstly, conventional fossil fuels are finite resources and will eventually be depleted or reach a point where the remaining resources cannot be extracted in an economically viable manner.

Secondly, the negative impact of GHG (Greenhouse Gases) emissions, released during the combustion of fossil fuels and which lead to climate change, is a global challenge that threatens the planet.

Thus, clean energy sources should become a major source of energy as they have a less damaging impact on the environment than fossil fuels.

The harnessing of renewable energy resources is significant because these systems are non-polluting and don’t deplete natural resources in the long run. 

Renewable energy adaptation in South Africa

The Rainbow Warrior Arrives in Cape Town bearing the banner that reads “Renewable Energy is the Solution”

Despite the challenges facing the renewable energy sector in South Africa, there are reasons for optimism.

South Africa is fortunate in that it is well endowed with non-depletable sustainable energy sources, notably solar and wind.

Although slowly, renewable technology has been deployed in South Africa to capture some of this energy. The two sources of RE that theoretically have the highest potential are solar and wind, both of which are worth briefly discussing.  The use of solar energy is the most readily accessible resource in South Africa, and solar radiation levels in South Africa are amongst the highest in the world. 

The two major ways in which solar radiation is utilized in South Africa are through solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity generation, and solar thermal electricity.  

The second form of renewable energy with high potential is wind. Wind is currently the fastest-growing energy industry in the world, and the industry in South Africa has followed this trend. 

Wind farms offer the largest immediate potential for input into the national electricity grid and for significantly alleviating South Africa’s power supply shortage as the technology is mature. While wind resources in South Africa are not as abundant as the solar resources discussed above, there is still a massive potential for electricity generation from wind. Wind power is consistently good along the coast, particularly along the Eastern Cape coastline.

An Urgent Call For Renewable Energy In South Africa

Although South Africa has an abundance of renewable energy natural resources, particularly solar and wind, the deployment of these technologies has been slow to take off. We believe that the take-up of more cost-efficient and decentralized electricity generation from renewables has been deliberately stalled.

These are the efforts we are taking to combat this:

  • Recently, Greenpeace activists disrupted Minister Gwede Manatashe’s speech at the Africa Energy Indaba to bring awareness to the government’s coal addiction that continues to lock us into a perpetual energy crisis.
  • We run multiple awareness campaigns and petitions (add your voice and tell President Cyril Ramaphosa to fast-track a shift to renewable energy). Did you know that the power grid has been opened up to independent renewable power producers (IPPs), for years? However, the endless blame game between Eskom and the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) is wasting time and making it nearly impossible for independent renewable power producers to provide South Africans with much needed power. We are calling on the government to commit to adding 13,600 megawatts of renewable energy (enough renewable energy to power almost 1 million homes per month) to our grid by the end of 2023. 

Increasing reliance on the dirtiest of all fossil fuels has crucial implications for South Africa’s worsening energy crisis, the climate, her energy policies, and the economy. Fossil fuel projects, ultimately, drive the climate crisis and if the goal is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 we need an urgent transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Coal also locks South Africa into load shedding. Load shedding is gutting the economy and leaving people unemployed. Renewable energy remains to be the only solution!

As Greenpeace Africa, we are constantly campaigning for the move away from coal. Coal is not the solution to many of our fast-growing energy problems, and our youth unemployment crisis even with the government’s insistence on the construction of new coal plants.

We are creating the basis of a future energy regime that will prioritise people over profit.

Environmental justice requires a radical prioritization of the rights of the people over that of private capital and corporations.

At Greenpeace Africa, we constantly reiterate that a sustainable, decentralized renewable energy regime will create more jobs than the centralized fossil energy regime.

There is still time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change if we take strong action now. There is still time to pull many South Africans from unemployment. The solution lies not in technocratic fixes, but in the hard yards of mobilizing – being part of a global movement that challenges the power held by the South African government and corporations.

Through this process of mobilization, resistance, and transforming society we will create a different world! It is our hope that you can join us by making a donation that will accelerate the realization of a renewable energy future for all South Africans.