Zero Carbon Energy

One Planet Cities Durban
9 min readMar 1, 2021

This week’s newsletter is about a topic long seen as the tough nut to crack in South Africa — Zero Carbon Energy. Breaking it down into the One Planet definition hopefully makes it more readily understandable:

“Making buildings and manufacturing energy efficient and supplying all energy with renewables”.

Infographic: Cundall: Multidisciplinary Engineers and Sustainability Consultants

If there can be one silver lining to the Eskom load-shedding crisis which began in 2008, it was the jolting of mind to ‘begin to do things differently’ in terms of getting our power from sources other than Eskom’s fossil fuel supply.

Could there be a ‘positive’, too, from the current pandemic situation — in again the realisation being that we cannot go on as ‘business as usual’ around the world with our current model of over-consumption and over-resource use.

A fascinating article here, talks to the fact that the Coronavirus pandemic has certainly provided companies with an opportunity to pause and reflect, and to better understand what’s important to stakeholders. In acknowledging the need to put people first, many companies have promised to help build a better future as the world recovers. Tackling climate change is a central tenet of many post-COVID corporate strategies.

More than 1,500 global companies have now set targets to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions — that’s triple the number that had done so by the end of 2019.

Last week the World Economic Forum publicised findings in a new report by the International Energy Agency that globally, wind and solar capacity will exceed coal and gas in less than five years. The anticipated 1,123 gigawatt (GW) increase in wind and solar would mean these power sources overtake gas capacity in 2023 and coal in 2024. The report also shows how renewables had proved to be resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic, unlike other commodities.

And as a local headline put it, accelerated renewables roll-out is one of the few substantial recovery opportunities’ open to South Africa in a post-Covid world.

The South African government is being urged to accelerate the implementation of its renewable-energy-heavy Integrated Resource Plan 2019 (IRP 2019) as part of the country’s post-Covid-19 economic recovery package. Meridian Economics (ME), who recently modelled the economic impact of such an acceleration with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), argues that a large renewables-led green stimulus is one of the few substantial recovery opportunities available that does not require any fiscal resources.

ME argues that, with political will and policy certainty, an accelerated renewables roll-out is not only feasible, but will deliver material economic and social benefits, while also bolstering much-needed energy security. An accelerated deployment of solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind generators would create immediate economic and employment opportunities, while opening up prospects for the domestic manufacturing of renewables components. It is a no brainer, as many agree.

President Ramaphosa said in his SONA address the government is going to facilitate self-generation as a way of alleviating the energy crisis, although sometimes the government has mixed messages, it has to be said. But there are encouraging moves with Eskom at least drawing up a Just Energy Transition Framework and having a dedicated office to this — see here.

Already corporates are leading the way, whether on shopping malls, factories, or in the mining industry. There is a lot going on in this space, even in Durban we find out, when beginning to do a little research.

There are privately owned bagasse to energy projects at Tongaat Hullet’s Maidstone Sugar Mill and at NCP Alcohols. There is Makro, with its solar arrays in their carparks (nice for shading!) — an example being their newest Cornubia store which has a 421 kWp, carport mounted, grid tied plant, which they forecast will produce approximately 660 000 kWh of renewable energy per annum. In total, the plant makes use of 1188 panels and 5 inverters. It will provide about 20% of the store’s annual electricity consumption and contribute between 60–70% of the store’s daytime electricity needs. The plant, which has a minimum expected life span of 20 years, will produce more than 11 million kWh of renewable energy over this period. In this instance, they have entered into a power purchase agreement whereby Distributed Power Africa own and operate the plant and Massmart purchases 100% of the solar energy produced. Massmart (the owners of Makro) estimate that through this arrangement they are able to purchase solar power at between 15–20% cheaper than grid rates (per comm, 14 September 2020, Alex Haw, Group Sustainability Executive).

And then there are others in Durban: Toyota, SBV, Westwood Mall, Nedbank, Grindrod, Mr Price Group … and the first carbon neutral commercial vehicle plant in South Africa, the MAN Truck and Bus production site in Pinetown. A huge photovoltaic system was installed with solar panels on 6,300 sqm of the production hall roofs. This system can generate up to 810,000 kWh per year and supplies enough solar energy on site to even leave a surplus that is fed into the local power grid. This measure alone reduces MAN’s CO2 emissions in production by 860 tons per year. Impressive and shows what can be achieved.

And let’s not forget the other things that were done to maximise energy efficiency: skylights built in wherever feasible to use as much daylight as possible, and insulation to make sure that air conditioning consumes as little energy as possible. The holistic picture. There are many more demand side management actions that can also be ‘low hanging fruit’ yet should be taken seriously — see here for one fascinating example of ‘cool roofs’. Encouragingly the World Bank has just provided a $305 000 grant for South Africa to develop a study on sustainable financial mechanisms for demand -side energy efficiency market transformation. And let’s not ever forget behaviour change in this analysis — SOS: “Switch Off Something”.

Other good examples in the private sector, elsewhere in SA and Africa, are here. At Woolworths, for example, some will have seen the lightweight frameless acrylic doors that are being rolled out to their fridges. When first trialled at one store, this saved 40% electricity at a refrigeration plant level and 25% overall at store level. Fit out has now been done to over 132 stores and continues to all, with a 2020 calculation submitted to EP100 showing a total improvement in energy productivity of 175% (NBI webinar, 4th August 2020, Woolworths interventions).

The world’s leading steel and mining company, Arcelor Mittal, in mid 2020, put out a Request for Information as they wish to put solar PV energy at their five main sites across SA, and want IPP’s to run with it — 100MW at their site in van der Bijl park, 10Mw at their Head Office, 10 MW at their other sites across the country. Sasol also, for its operations — 600MW, so the trend amongst corporate SA to do this, is there. There are two main reasons why — price path certainty, as with increasing Eskom tariffs and the uncertainty of loadshedding; also in terms of the climate change emergency, it is important for companies to decrease their carbon emissions, not least of all to gain reputational advantage, to show they are taking serious action. Those companies who export will be focusing on net zero carbon which will require them to focus on the supply chain.

Those companies in SA who have not started on the journey to understanding and managing their carbon, will be caught short against competitors. So the picture is a combination of security of supply, price path certainty and environmental responsibility.

On the built environment front a useful publication recently released is ‘Getting to Zero: a Guide to Developing Net Zero Carbon Building in SA’. It gives a thorough overview on net zero carbon buildings in South Africa and provides guidance to professional teams considering developing a net zero carbon building and shows those shaping the built environment in South Africa that it is possible.

Sustainable Energy Africa also has a treasure trove on information on their website and deals with transport, too, which will be the subject of one of our next newsletters. Transport has a significant impact on our carbon footprint as our Durban Ecofootprint study shows.

On the municipal front, contact with eThekwini Electricity Department has revealed the municipal projects to date: there is the 1 MW landfill gas to electricity project at Marianhill, 6.5 MW landfill gas to electricity project at Bisasar Road Landfill site, there are 5 solar PV projects on municipal owned buildings in the city namely uShaka Marine World, Metro Police HQ building, Water and Sanitation Customer Services building and Moses Mabhida Stadium arch and the Peoples Park Restaurant. See here for more information about alternative energy projects the municipality is involved with.

As renewable energy becomes more affordable and feasible, Durban has set its sights on becoming carbon neutral by starting with decarbonising the city’s energy supply.

eThekwini has done a ‘road mapping’ process, in which solar, wind, small-scale hydropower, biomass, and waste-to-energy options were explored and found to be viable alternatives to the current fossil fuel-dominated system. The City has also taken a unique approach in piloting pre-feasibility studies investigating ocean thermal energy generation, which found the possibility of harnessing 52 GW of electricity in the coastal areas of Durban. It has created an Integrated Resource Plan, or IRP, to procure renewable alternatives and generate its own clean energy. Following this move, it has also devised a municipal independent power producer (IPP) procurement plan. These efforts are paving the way to achieve the municipality’s ambitions of 40% electricity derived from renewable energy by 2030 and 100% by the year 2050. Yes, ambitious we agree, but sometimes one has to stop being afraid of what can go wrong, and start being excited about what can go right!

Money-saving tips
Let’s not forget what we as homeowners and perhaps smaller ‘players’ in the market can do. Solar hot water geysers can save you up to 30% on your electricity bill with a payback period of five years or less.

The good news is that the municipality is looking to bring its Shisa Solar project back, allowing some rebate if you do bite the bullet and put such a system on your roof. Yes, there is upfront cost but once the system is on your roof it just gets better all the time in terms of savings on your monthly bill — and this needs to be factored in.

Other money saving tips include changing light bulbs to LED, installing insulation, using ceiling fans instead of air con, opening your windows when home and the weather is cool. And there are even exciting solutions happening that provide social enterprise and green entrepreneur opportunity in under-served communities — see the iShack project in Stellenbosch, Solar Turtle and Zonke Energy — renewable, clean and safe energy is the way to go for all of us.

The latest Global Renewables Outlook suggests renewable energy can fuel a more “equitable and resilient world.”

From a human rights, social stability and long-term resilience perspective, the hope is that the renewable energy stimulus will be felt by as many people as possible. Coal/gas/fossil fuel job replacement (along the entire horizontal and vertical value chains of those industries), water access, financial and digital inclusion and jobs in general (especially for women) need to be mainstreamed quickly to create the resilience that is needed. But the recognition is there that the country needs to ensure it has a capacitated workforce to service the solar PV industry e.g with mounters, panel cleaners, system designers, installers and maintenance personnel — the Energy and Water SETA is aware of the ripeness of this opportunity. And at the end of life of products, again the example being solar production recycling, there will also be significant opportunity for skills development, job creation and revenue for producers if the right off-take markets are developed. To date there are few licensed solar waste management service providers in SA — clearly there is room here, for growth.

Zero carbon is a scenario specific subject and can be complex. Learnings to date show that it is a long game to improve energy efficiency and change over to renewable systems — continuous improvement needs to happen over time. There are also no silver bullets — a holistic approach is required. Certainly, when it comes to energy efficiency on a large scale, data management is essential — which can be challenging and complicated, and often investment is required to recognize savings and improvements. But we are all on this road — so get onto the bandwagon. Well done to the early adopters. And let’s be positive about a new future of green economy and efficiency, hand in hand with social upliftment and increased clean provision for all that the opportunity brings.



One Planet Cities Durban

Part of the ‘One Planet Cities’ project, funded by KR Foundation, with five cities piloting an online platform to make sustainability action planning easy.