Energy Sources: Fuelling our Nation

Private Property South Africa
Gina Schoeman

Gina Schoeman warns that with compulsory load-shedding becoming a reality over the next three years, we as homeowners are going to have to find ways to diminish our energy consumption, while at the same time, finding alternative sources for energy.

It was a typical Sunday afternoon at one of Johannesburg's most established country clubs - the tea was freshly brewed, a cricket team (aptly named the 'Goblins') were playing on the field in the distance, and the promise of summer emerged in the breeze. The table I was at got onto the very heated topic of South Africa's coal dependency, alternative energy sources and how to be 'green' in everyday life. Obviously unable to escape the discussion (and level of noise as the conversation grew), a man seated at the table alongside ours leant over and asked us what we thought the next alternative source of energy would be? We threw out a few suggestions - solar, wind, ethanol - to which he replied (with an expression that hinted that he knew something we didn't), hydrogen. We then discussed the cumbersome process of solar and how dirty coal actually is as an energy source.

All of this got me thinking… where exactly does South Africa sit in the world rankings of being 'green' and what is our greatest 'sin'? I've been keeping a close watch on our coal dependency for a while now and perhaps it's time to get those statistics out there. Hold on tight, this may surprise you!

Getting hauled over the coals…

Coal is infamous for its reputation as probably the dirtiest energy source out there. And in South Africa, coal accounts for approximately 75% of primary energy consumption (at least this is what the latest data shows). The majority of this coal is used to generate electricity, while the remainder is used in synthetic fuel and petrochemical operations. As can be seen in the figure below, the high-usage of coal in South Africa means that our country produces almost all the carbon dioxide emissions on the African continent. The next two major contributors are Morocco and Zimbabwe, but in comparison, their levels of carbon emissions are minuscule.

Figure 1: CO2 emissions from coal consumption

CO2 Emission from Coal Consumption

To make matters worse, even when compared with the rest of the world, South Africa easily outpaces its fellow emerging markets, ranking alongside developed countries in regards to the amount of carbon dioxide emissions per capita; we rank 14th in the world for carbon dioxide emissions alone. This really should be of concern because of the consequence this creates with our main trading partners. Europe is fully-committed as a continent to 'greener' economies, and they have recently warned our markets that should we not clean up our act, they will refuse to trade with us. Europe is currently our largest trading partner and therefore, this could have a dire effect on export levels.

Figure 2. Per Capita CO2

CO2 Emission from Coal Consumption

Strong economic growth means that increased infrastructure expenditure will continue to increase the demand for electricity, thus placing more pressure on Eskom to meet market demand. As a result, more coal will be required in order to supply higher levels of electricity, even while substitute products for coal are being investigated.

The bottom-line of our debate that Sunday afternoon was this: can the availability of alternative energy solutions eventually overtake the immense demand for energy sourced from coal? And if load-shedding is to become a reality, what does this mean for individuals in the next three years? We're not sure what the answer is, but we can assume that it is going to be a fairly tricky process. With compulsory load-shedding becoming a reality over the next three years, we as homeowners are going to have to find ways to diminish our energy consumption, while at the same time, finding alternative sources for energy (such as gas, solar and possibly, according to the new friend I made that afternoon, even hydrogen).

The fundamentals of South Africa's energy challenge are fairly straightforward. To quote the Eskom website:

"When load exceeds supply, the load has to be reduced to a point where the available capacity can handle it… so the system controllers 'shed some load' - they switch off the supply to various customers for a short while." (

I was impressed to see that both Eskom and City Power tackle the topic of load-shedding and outages as soon as you enter their websites. After some looking around, I found my suburb quite easily and decided to see what I'm in for, for the long-haul.

For my suburb, two scenarios currently exist:

  • If energy consumption in the Johannesburg region increases rather quickly (Brown Stage 1), I will be without electricity between 10:00am - 12:30pm during the day - this isn't too bad seeing as I'm at work 120% of the time during these hours.

  • However, should energy consumption increase quicker than a speeding bullet (Brown Stage 2), I'm going to find myself without electricity and hot water from 6:00am - 8:30am (clearly I prefer the former option).

You may have heard the long-held adage, "Save water, bath with a friend", but in true South African style, this all sounds more to me like "Save electricity, have a braai with a friend".

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