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Shedding light on energy poverty and communities who live in conditions of informality

Isandla Institute | 2024-03-26 | 688 views

Load-shedding in South Africa has arguably impacted every person in the country, traversing geographical, social, economic and class barriers. However, as in the case with most basic service delivery failures, it disproportionately impacts economically vulnerable people who do not have access to alternate resources to mitigate its impacts. The consequences of loadshedding, as we well know, range from inconvenient to life- threatening.

Although the ramifications of load-shedding are far-reaching, it only highlights one facet of the much broader, more pervasive phenomenon of energy poverty. As the name implies, load-shedding refers to the deliberate shutdown of electric power in a part or parts of a power-distribution system, to relieve some of the demand when the system is over-burdened. However, for households who consistently experience energy poverty, loadshedding may be markedly less noticeable.

While there is no accepted uniform definition of energy poverty, there is agreement that it is multifaceted and far-reaching. Energy poverty is experienced in households that do not have access to sufficient (modern) energy resources to fulfil everyday household activities such as cooking, indoor heating, lighting, cooling and communication, all of which are considered necessary to having an acceptable quality of life. It may very well be that people have access to the national electricity grid, have an electricity meter, but are unable to access electricity throughout the month because it is simply unaffordable. These households are forced to rely on cheaper means of non-renewable energy such as paraffin, wood and kerosene, which can have immediate and long-term health impacts. Some resort to illegal electricity connections, which are safety hazards.

For those who live in informal contexts such as informal settlements and backyard housing, the impacts of energy poverty are particularly severe. Insufficient lighting in informal settlements creates an enabling environment for conditions of violence and crime. Energy poverty also creates a gendered burden in that key choices related to how to run the household often fall to women. For example, food that does not require refrigeration often has less nutritious value. Women have to make the choice between economic activity or cooking, or ensuring sufficient energy to enable children to study for longer hours. Energy poverty also shapes the prospects of households and communities to improve living conditions and access economic development opportunities through, for example, home industries and small businesses.

What then are the key drivers of energy poverty and what are the pathways to improved energy security and improved living conditions? The drivers of energy poverty are not new. Research reveals that there is a direct corelation between income poverty and energy poverty. High rates of urbanisation and associated informal settlement growth compound inherited service delivery backlogs. Unaffordable electricity tariffs coupled with energy inefficient homes and appliances also add to the problem.

For informal settlements, there is often a long waiting period to acquire tenure security and the formal recognition which would enable basic service provision to be formalised. In the context of backyard housing, often the main property on the erf is the locus of municipal attention and backyard residents are overlooked in the extension of free basic services, which includes the free basic electricity allocation of 50kWh per household per month. Research by PARI indicates that despite receiving allocations for indigent households in terms of the equitable share allocation, municipalities are not providing free basic electricity to all of these vulnerable households as part of their basic service delivery mandate.

It is clear, however, that even if it were possible to provide traditional electrical connections for all households to the national grid, it is not the answer. South Africa has no choice but to transition from the current system dependent on the unsustainable reliance on coal generated electricity to that of a low-carbon economy, reliant on alternate, renewable sources of energy. As part of the just urban transition, the needs of the most vulnerable and those who are already disproportionately impacted by energy poverty must be prioritised. Research suggests that the state cannot do this alone.

What is required is an ‘all of society’ approach that embraces partnerships between the state, private sector, civil society and communities to explore alternate energy sources and sustainable systems of energy supply. There are examples of innovation in practice. These range from initiatives such as providing solar lighting in a pilot in an informal settlement in Khayelitsha in the Western Cape to strengthen community safety, to larger scale projects such as the micro-grid solar rollout in 14 informal settlements across Gauteng. These pilot projects require partnerships to enable replication at scale and to demonstrate the potential of increased energy access. These are among the many examples of successful partnerships that have achieved improved energy access for vulnerable communities. Sustainable solutions can, however, only gain traction if communities are fully part of the deliberative engagement processes that see the transitioning of these projects from bright ideas to energy-efficient realities.

Slum upgrading remains the most financially and socially appropriate approach to addressing the challenge of existing slums. UN Habitat (A Practical Guide to Designing, Planning, and Executing Citywide Slum Upgrading Programmes 2015 (PDF), page 15)

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