The politics of electricity distribution in South Africa

A new paper, written by Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED) researcher Dr Lucy Baker and Dr Jon Phillips from King’s College London analyses recent developments in South Africa’s electricity distribution sector and the potential for grid-tied, rooftop solar photovoltaics (PV) to provide affordable, decentralised, low-carbon energy.

The article uncovers significant political, economic, technical and regulatory challenges to the installation of rooftop solar PV in South Africa . These challenges are rooted in the country’s socio-economic and racial inequalities and its heavy dependence on a coal-fired electricity sector which has become a tool of political control and state capture.

The authors also find that the installation of rooftop solar PV in South Africa has not come about in response to the introduction of national energy regulation, but rather due to the response of high-income consumers to a national electricity crisis, rising electricity tariffs and the  falling technology cost of solar PV.

The researchers conclude that while the installation of rooftop solar PV is important for the low-carbon energy transition, in the absence of appropriate policy and planning it may divert critical revenue; raised from the country’s high-income electricity consumers. This revenue  is currently cross-subsidising electricity services for the poor and other municipal public services. The paper therefore also highlights the need for a just transition, not only a low-carbon one.

The study draws on field work interviews, an extensive desk based analysis of policy and regulatory documents, as well as reports and publications by civil society organisations, industry and relevant media.

Read the full paper.