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The political economy of decarbonisation: Exploring the dynamics of South Africa’s electricity sector

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L. Baker
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South Africa’s electricity landscape is undergoing rapid change. The state-owned monopoly utility, historically dependent on the country’s until recently low-cost coal supplies is now in financial and supply-side crisis, subject to growing indebtedness and downgraded to non-investment grade or ‘junk’ status.

South Africa has gone from one of the world’s cheapest electricity generators in the early 2000s to a 270% increase in electricity tariffs by 2015, with further increases predicted in the future.

Since late 2014 the country has experienced regular load-shedding, a symptom of a larger electricity supply shortage that began in 2007, and which is likely to continue for at least five to ten years.

Meanwhile, a successful programme for the procurement of renewable energy from independent power producers (IPPs) has procured 6300 MW since it was introduced in 2011, generating approximately 2% of total electricity at the time of writing in September 2015.

Processes are also underway to procure independent power from other sources, including coal, cogeneration and gas, as well an embedded generation programme for rooftop solar photovoltaics (PV). A 9600 MW nuclear fleet is also currently under discussion and shale gas extraction is being explored, both of which are the subject of contested debate.

The paper suggests the following key points in summary:

Decarbonisation goes far beyond what is technologically or even economically feasible, to encompass a complexity of political, social and economic factors.
South Africa’s coal-dominated electricity sector, a key feature of the country’s mineralsenergy complex, is in crisis and subject to change. This offers potential opportunities for decarbonisation.
Despite positive examples of decarbonisation in South Africa’s electricity sector, such as a procurement programme for renewable energy, there are structural path dependencies around coal-fired generation and security of supply.
Decision-making in electricity is highly politicised. Lack of transparency and power struggles in the policy sphere are key challenges to decarbonisation.
There are battles over which technologies should be prioritised and which institutional arrangements should facilitate them.