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ENERGY-SOUTH AFRICA: Putting Sunshine in Your Taps

Gail Jennings* - IPS/IFEJ

CAPE TOWN, Jul 4 2007 (IPS) - Solar water heaters offer people the chance to save money, increase the security of the local and national energy supply – and cut down on greenhouse emissions said to cause climate change. Yet, roofs throughout South Africa are noticeably bare.

Solar water heating technology in action. Credit: Suntank Solar Water Heating

Solar water heating technology in action. Credit: Suntank Solar Water Heating

According to research published this year by Sustainable Energy Africa, a non-governmental organisation based in the South African coastal city of Cape Town, less than one percent of households have solar water heaters (SWHs) – even though South Africa is bathed in sunshine.

Now Cape Town plans to change this state of affairs, with a new Solar Water Heating Bylaw.

The initiative comes in the wake of extensive black-outs in the city about a year ago, when various factors caused both reactors at the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station to run below full capacity at the same time. One of the reactors needed repairs after suffering damage to a generator, this while the second was being refuelled. Public Enterprises Minister Alec Erwin initially appeared to indicate that the generator had been the target of sabotage – but later denied having suggested this.

Some 400 of the 4,300 megawatt hours (MWh) required daily by Cape Town and its surrounds went unsupplied for approximately five months, highlighting the danger of having these areas so dependent on a single power station.

SWH technology, available at least since the 1950s, appears well-placed to serve as one of the alternative energy sources Cape Town so clearly needs. The heaters are relatively expensive to install, costing between about 555 and 2,085 dollars. But they require little maintenance and are also durable, lasting for around 25 years. This enables users to recoup installation costs through future electricity savings.

Under the proposed bylaw – the first of its kind in South Africa – most new buildings (and those undergoing renovations) with a value of more than about 70,000 dollars will be required to meet at least 60 percent of their water heating requirements with solar heaters.

The city&#39s 2005 &#39Energy and Climate Change Strategy&#39 has set a target of having 10 percent of all city households using solar water heating by 2010. Official estimates put Cape Town&#39s population at 3.23 million.

The legislation does not address the problem of high installation costs: along with a lack of incentives, this is viewed as being amongst the most important reasons why people do not buy solar water heaters.

But Osman Asmal, Cape Town&#39s director of environmental resource management, says the city is "looking at" incentives and financing options.

The SWH bylaw has not been planned in isolation of other regional and national energy efficiency programmes, he adds. Eskom, the national electricity utility, recently announced significant subsidies for SWH installations – and Cape Town is trying to ensure that its residents can benefit from this scheme.

Simply getting increased numbers of heaters up and running also presents a challenge.

"There is no doubt installation capacity will be a problem," says Nerial Hurwitz of Suntank Solar Water Heating, a firm based in the capital, Pretoria. "We don&#39t have enough skilled plumbers and electricians yet."

A solar water heater is typically made up of a hot water storage tank or geyser, and a roof-mounted panel (called a "collector") that absorbs the sun&#39s energy and uses it to heat the tank water.

In certain instances, however, the city may simply be creating problems for itself.

The proposed bylaw lays out detailed installation specifications, for instance, as regards the angle at which a collector should be mounted, to ensure that it absorbs enough sunlight. A declaration of daily hot water output is also required, along with other information. These requirements have been set in the belief that they are essential to measuring the success of the bylaw.

But is all of this really necessary, asks David Rossiter of the Australian Renewable Energy Regulator, in South Africa recently to attend the Southern African Solar Heating Summit. "We assume that if you have spent the money on a solar water heater, you will put it in approximately the right place!" he notes.

Australia offers rebates to households that install solar water heaters – and demand has grown to the point that the country has already reached its renewable energy target, initially set for 2010: an additional 9.5 million MWh of energy generated annually by renewable sources.

Brazil has also made strides with the introduction of this technology. Three cities in this South American country have already adopted solar water heating bylaws, while a further 12 are considering them, says Delcio Rodrigues of the Vitae Vicilis Institute, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the economic hub of Sao Paulo.

Residents using solar water heaters receive a ten percent rebate on municipal taxes – increased to 15 percent if the heaters were manufactured in the cities where they live.

In addition, five universities and technical schools in Brazil offer training in SWH installation, to ensure that the country does not experience the labour crunch referred to by Hurwitz.

"We cannot have a bylaw obliging anyone to do anything, or reducing rates, without this training and qualification system," observes Rodrigues, who also attended the Southern African Solar Heating Summit, noting that there has been a 15 percent increase in SWH sales since public awareness campaigns began in anticipation of the legislation. The Brazilian bylaws were adopted in December 2006.

Namibia and Kenya, however, are struggling with a shortage of skilled workers to install heaters.

Shimweefeleni Hamutswe Jr of the Namibian Ministry of Mines and Energy, and Jared Atiang of NGO Energy Environment and Development Network for Africa, in Kenya, both say this is hampering efforts to broaden the use of SWH in their countries. In Namibia a cabinet directorate makes is compulsory for all new, public and parastatal buildings to use solar water heaters.

At present, Cape Town&#39s SWH bylaw is being examined by the city&#39s lawyers. A vote on the legislation is tentatively expected within the next few months, after which it seems likely that the law will be phased in, giving the municipality, industry, building contractors, architects and others time to prepare, according to Asmal.

Those who argue that laws are unnecessary – and that an increase in SWH can be left to the market – are misguided, says Kevin Nassiep, chief executive officer of the South African National Energy Research Institute, associated with the University of Cape Town.

"A willing buyer, willing seller environment will not deliver on renewable energy targets in time," he notes. "We need to explore other ways of delivery."

(* This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ – the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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leonard apeltsin