Solar and wind energy is high on the agenda as SA becomes energy efficient.

In the little agricultural town of Droogfontein in the Northern Cape a quiet revolution is under way. And, fairly soon, one of the first renewable energy projects initiated by independent power producers will ensure that the town, situated near Kimberley in the Sol Plaatje Municipality, goes completely off the national grid – making this a first for South Africa.

The solar project has been developed on 100 hectares of land and will supply electricity to the national grid while powering 30 000 households over the next two decades.

The government currently subscribes to most international energy protocols, including the UN Energy Programme and the World Bank’s Strategic Climate Fund. In fact, the UN recently stated that South Africa and Kenya had the highest rate of implementation in the developing world.

Further, the Department of Energy’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) has already seen 92 projects approved. We are also well on our way to exceeding the National Development Plan’s target of 21 percent of total electricity supply by 2030 coming via renewable energy.

Given current energy constraints, coupled with future economic and social growth targets, the government has embarked on implementing a range of energy solutions.

Solar and wind energy is high on that agenda as we see South Africa becoming an energy-efficient country while, as part of a larger growth strategy, becoming the market leader in Africa through exporting renewables.

All of this will come into sharp focus at the South African International Renewable Energy Conference (SAIREC) being held in Cape Town from today until Wednesday.

Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson has already hailed it a privilege for South Africa to have been selected to host the event and said it was ready to “chart the way forward for this sector with like-minded countries that realise the benefits of investing in renewable energy”.

South Africans are frustrated with electricity supply problems. However, many are unaware as to what exactly is being done in the renewables sector. Specifically, how it positively impacts on communities, both rural and urban, uplifts local economies (in some instances reinvigorating economically stagnant towns), creates employment and stimulates the SMME sector as well as drawing foreign direct investment.

Unknowingly, all South Africans are experiencing the positive impact of renewable energy.

First, the REIPPPP neither costs the government nor taxpayers any money. The independent power producers are obliged to invest in their own infrastructure and technology. The government only provides security for the risk of investment in the form of guaranteed off-takes and tariffs over the lifetime of the solar and wind plants.

Second, a recent study by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) on the impact of renewable energy found that from January to June this year, 15 days of load shedding was either prevented or a higher stage of load shedding was avoided or delayed for several hours.

Third, it found that during this period wind and solar projects saved the national power supplier R3.6 billion in diesel and coal fuel costs.

Last, renewable energy is fast becoming more affordable and cost-effective. In just three years, solar and wind power has, per energy unit, become cheaper than coal- generated power from newly-built coal plants.

In addition, the CSIR study reveals that the average tariff paid to the most recently selected power producers, per unit of solar and wind energy, is now only R0.82/kWh (solar) and R0.65/kWh (wind), having dropped from R3.44/kWh and R1.43/kWh respectively.

The above shows that the high number of investments in the sector has made it sustainable, cost-effective and, naturally, environmentally prudent.

Equally as important, renewable energy is reinvigorating communities and local economies through the REIPPPP process. To date, independent power producers have committed R19.1 billion to socio-economic development as well as R6bn towards enterprise development.

This is largely due to the strict offshoot conditions set by the government, which has adopted a holistic approach to energy solutions designed to stimulate socio-economic growth. The programme, therefore, ensures job creation and enterprise development while tackling poverty, inequality and infrastructure deficiencies.

Droogfontein Solar Power, for example, has built a R400 000 water purification plant for the rural community of nearby Riverton. At least 45 households of mainly farm labourers now receive potable water.

In addition, they have developed and assisted in early childhood development (ECD) and crèche programmes as well as literacy and numeracy projects. As a direct result, 24 previously unemployed matriculants now have jobs, while at least 50 ECD practitioners are upskilling and improving their qualifications.

Then there is the De Aar solar plant in the Karoo that has provided a much-needed boost for the once-thriving farming town.

Its construction alone created 2 000 jobs. In addition to its socio-economic programme, the plant has introduced a farmer development initiative where R1 million in grants was provided to two black women ostrich farmers for infrastructure improvements, the purchase of chicks and to explore potential downstream industries.

The Hopefield Wind Farm in the Western Cape is owned and developed by Umoya Energy. The local community owns a stake in Umoya and has partnered with climate change consultancy South SouthNorth to implement the Hopefield Home Improvement Project.

Through using local industry and creating opportunities for SMMEs, more than 600 homes will be upgraded in the area by October next year.

The REIPPPP programme is also creating black industrialists such as Stephen Dondolo, the chief executive of the African Pioneer Group (APG), who is part of Tewa Power, the first black-owned renewable energy company in South Africa.

Before the renewable procurement process even began, he realised its potential and invested in a company within the sector. That partnership has now resulted in two wind farms in the Eastern Cape, MetroWind and Kouga, being built. MetroWind is a true success story as it is the only wind farm in the country wholly owned by South African companies.

Similarly, in 2009 five young entrepreneurs from the financial services sector – Obakeng Moloabi, Gqi Raoleka, Fumani Mthembi, Boipelo Moloabi and Thapelo Motlogeloa – left their high-flying jobs to start Pele Green Energy (PGE).

Their dream was to start a social development enterprise focused on youth upliftment. Since then, they have won bids on seven renewable energy projects, five wind farms and two solar projects, with the local communities enjoying shareholder status. PGE is also involved in engineering, procurement, operations and maintenance on three other solar and wind projects.

Herman Scheer, an author and academic, puts it best when he says renewable energy holds the key to our ecological, political and economic survival – and that such a revolution is inevitable.