Clean Energy Alternatives for South Africa

Jonathan Mak
May 26, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017


Fig. 1: One of South Africa's 16 coal powered plants. Efforts are currently made to cut back on coal dependence. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the 21st century, there have been multiple movements to expand the reach of clean energy, even here in the United States. This is especially important for poorer countries as they move forward to become more developed. Similar to how the Green Revolution changed farming and agriculture after the methods had been developed in first world countries, newer energy infrastructure methods should be implemented in order to advance these countries as fast as possible. Currently, South Africa consumes 122.3 million TOE (Tonnes of Oil Equivalent) for their primary energy consumption of which coal makes up 85.1 million TOE, which is almost 70% of its total energy. [1] While South Africa's total coal consumption is low compared to other countries, the large percentage of its energy budget that this constitutes is nonetheless interesting. Coal use takes a substantial toll on its residents because of its pollution, and is estimated to cause 2,200 to 2,700 premature deaths per year through air pollution emissions from Eskom's coal-fired power plants. [2] With this in mind, South Africa is looking to divest into other energy resources. Some have even called South Africa overdependent on coal, and as such the country has been looking for other cleaner and more sustainable energy alternatives (see Fig. 1). We know that coal consumption is 85.1 million TOE (Tonnes of Oil Equivalent), so we can convert this in terms of joules provided, which equates to 3.56 × 1018 joules. This means that the total 122.3 million TOE consumed has a joule equivalent of 5.11 × 1018 joules. So far, legislators have proposed reducing its emissions, and the country is actively looking for alternatives, such as solar energy and other sustainable living environments, such as creations of eco-villages.

Clean Energy Alternatives

Work has already been done in South Africa to help divest from being too dependent on coal. In 2010, an Integrated Resource Plan was published, where a 20-year projection on electricity demand and production was estimated. It was ruled that by the 20 years, around 42% of electricity generated must come from renewable resources. [3]

One obvious alternative, and one which is growing in popularity is nuclear energy. Around 6.5% of South Africa's electricity is provided from two Nuclear Power Stations just outside of Cape Town. Both are owned by Eskom, a South African Electricity Public utility. A recent Nuclear Energy Policy passed is one large step into diversifying South Africa's primary energy sources. As it stands, it is currently the only African country with a nuclear energy power plant. While they were built during apartheid, these plants signify a large stepping stone moving towards alternative energy sources.

As observed by Abate, South Africa is slowly gaining traction with local and small scale solar power. What barely existed in 2014 now powers of 600,000 homes in South Africa, and is a large proponent for clean energy. [4] This fast pace has helped many people that previously didn't have electricity to suddenly gain a reliable source of energy. If growth of this alternative continues at this pace, then the chronic shortage power will be dealt with, the lack of which currently "trims Africa's annual growth by two percentage points". [5]

Challenges and Conclusions

South Africa has made leaps and bounds in terms of improving their energy independence these last few years. However, because of this rapid growth, there obviously are going to be roadblocks. One question that naturally presents itself is how the government will aid in the transition from coal, and how the workers will be located to newer industries. Of course, we all want to see change in the world, but enough foresight must be in place in order to make the transition as smooth as possible.

© Jonathan Mak. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017," British Petroleum, June 2017.

[2] L. Myllyvirta, "Health Impacts and Social Costs of Eskom's Proposed Non-Compliance With South Africa's Air Emission Standards," Greenpeace, 10 Feb 14.

[3] D. Burger, ed., South Africa South Africa Yearbook 2011/12 (CTP Printers, 2012), p. 170.

[4] I. Abate, "Off-Grid Electricity in Africa," Physics 240, Stanford University, Fall 2016.

[5] "Africa Unplugged," The Economist, 29 Oct 16.