Megan Davies and Jeeten Morar set off for the Northern Cape at the beginning of May for a month of exploration and adventure as part of research for their PhD and MPhil projects. Investigating the developmental impacts of the large scale renewable energy plants, the Northern Cape was the ideal starting point—the province hosts around a third of the country’s total renewable plants.
After a long drive through the vast and desolate Karoo landscape, we sensed a distinct change as we drove off from Kenhardt, our last pit-stop before arriving in the lush oasis that is the Green Kalahari. As the landscape unfolded before us, we marvelled at outcrops of Quiver Trees, or Kokkerbome, as they are referred to in this part of the world, and bright green vineyards nestled below craggy Kalahari koppies. At first we were puzzled, beckoned, by a distant glare but soon realised it was the halo atop Africa’s first concentrated solar plant (CSP) tower. As we crisscrossed the country, clocking up 7500 kilometres on our rental bakkie, the tower became a signal of homecoming, as we settled in the beautiful town of Keimoes for the duration of our trip.
An anomaly in the horizon, this 200 metre CSP tower between Upington and Keimoes, hails the arrival of the renewable energy industry to sun-drenched, rural Northern Cape. So far, around R194 billion has been invested and 95 plants built since 2011 as part of the Department of Energy’s Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme (REIPPPP), making South Africa’s renewable energy sector the fastest growing in the world. This internationally recognised programme is successfully in line to procure the 2025 target of 6 300 MW of green energy for the South African energy mix, and relieving pressure off a historically over-burdened electricity supply grid.
As well as feeding renewable energy into the national grid, Independent Power Producers (IPPs) are mandated by the Department of Energy to make provision for a minimum of 2.5% community ownership (conventionally held by a community trust). They must also spend a portion of revenue on community upliftment in communities within a 50 km radius of their plants. In essence, the Department of Energy has coupled the rapid growth of the renewable energy sector with socio-economic development imperatives, with an apparent focus on local and regional economies. In many ways the programme has been a victim of its own success. The rapid uptake of the programme has come with major challenges in terms of implementation, coordination and reporting.
Our particular interest in investigating the impacts of IPPs’ commitments to socio-economic and enterprise development led us to a wide range of conversations, made possible by a fellow graduate of the Sustainability Institute, Johny Mac Kay, a Director at Kai !Garib Municipality. In line with our transdisciplinary research methodology—best described as interdisciplinary science with societal actors—we set about building relationships with municipal and district officials, community members and IPP representatives amongst others. Attending the ZF Mqcawu District Development Forum was a valuable opportunity to see how efforts to coordinate IPP activities in the region are unfolding, and how our research might support more effective development outcomes. We were also fortunate enough to do four site visits around Upington which allowed us to see hydro, solar photo-voltaic and concentrated solar power plants in action. Complementing our grounded experiences in the Northern Cape, an understanding of these challenges has been enriched through close engagement with the IPP Unit at the Department of Energy and the Development Bank of Southern Africa (a development finance institution involved in REIPPPP) with whom we have established a Memorandum of Understanding.
We look forward to spending more time in the Northern, Western and Eastern Cape, as we expand our exploration into the wind energy space. As we explore this emerging industry in South Africa, we hope to take insights and lessons from established, and in many cases declining, industries such as the mining sector, where corporate social investment and economic development are high on the agenda.