This paper argues that the distribution of electricity represents an important yet neglected aspect of the politics of energy transitions. In recent years, South Africa’s electricity sector has seen the introduction of new actors and technologies, including the ‘prosumer’ (producer–consumer) of electricity and small-scale embedded generation from roof-top solar photovoltaics. We analyse these recent developments in historical context and consider implications for contemporary planning, regulation and ownership of electricity. We find that the reconfiguration of electricity distribution faces significant political and economic challenges that are rooted in the country’s socio-economic and racial inequalities and its heavy dependence on coal-fired power. First small-scale embedded generation offers potential opportunities for affordable, decentralised, low-carbon energy, yet disruption to the coal-powered electric grid and the monopoly of South Africa’s electricity utility has been minimal to date. Second, small-scale embedded generation creates tensions between equitable and low-carbon energy transitions and threatens critical revenue from the country’s wealthy consumers that cross-subsidises electricity services for the poor and other municipal public services. Third, the South African experience queries common assumptions about the democratic potential of decentralised governance. Fourth, South Africa provides insights of global significance into how political institutions have responded to social and technological drivers of change, in a context where planning and regulation have followed rather than led infrastructural developments. While energy policy remains unresponsive or resistant to social and technological change, there remain significant political, economic, technical and regulatory challenges to a just and inclusive energy transition.
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