Understanding industrial decarbonisation in South Africa - Pokuwa Strong and Matt Joss
Comment by Pokuwa Strong, Consultant – Systems Engineering, and Matt Joss, Practice Manager – Engineering & Analysis, at Energy Systems Catapult.
As governments and industry prioritise the transition to Net Zero through energy innovation and sustainability, South Africa stands out as an attractive destination for innovation testing and trialling.
With ambitious, forward-thinking policies and plans, the country is keen to meet its decarbonisation goals, while resolving its challenges with energy security.
South Africa is ranked eighth globally in coal electricity generation and faces recurrent nationwide scheduled blackouts due to a perennial energy crisis. Yet, the nation boasts considerable untapped renewable energy, especially solar, offering a substantial opportunity for clean energy innovation. This transition signifies more than environmental change; it’s a just and inclusive path forward for all South Africans.
During our visit to South Africa in July 2023, we were immediately faced with the realities of the country’s energy security challenge. On the first day of our visit to better understand the potential commercial partnerships between the UK and South Africa, we discovered local coffee shops running diesel generators to provide local people with a place to work when power is reduced at home because of electricity load shedding. A local manager of one store explained to us how well this was attracting customers – while good for the local baristas, such energy management should send alarm bells ringing.
Pokuwa Strong visits one of the many coffee shops powered by diesel generators in South Africa
The magnitude of the clean energy potential became evident right away, where advancements in industrial decarbonisation can address two challenges at once. Our visit to South Africa was at the invitation of the British High Commission, a part of the South Africa Industrial Decarbonisation Project. The goal was to explore collaboration prospects for joint South Africa/UK research and development. Additionally, we sought to uncover opportunities for innovative technologies from UK SMEs, fostering ongoing bilateral trade ties in energy technologies and innovation between the two nations.
Over the course of the week, we met with South African academics, government officials, and industry to understand what the challenges to industrial decarbonisation stakeholders were facing, as well as what opportunities and role(s) UK organisations can play to assist South Africa with its path to Net Zero.
The stakeholders we engaged with included: the South African President’s Special Advisor on Energy, the University of Pretoria, the UK Foreign Office, South Africa Department for Trade, South Africa Department of Science and Innovation, Anglo-American, Sasol, and the British Chamber of Business in Southern Africa Roundtable.
(L-R): Dr Getrude Njokwe, Anneri Oosthuizen, Dr Jessika Bohlmann, Professor Heinrich Bohlmann, Pokuwa Strong, Kim Adonis, Matt Joss, Professor Roula I
Here, we share some of the key findings from our visit:
The obstacles to industrial decarbonisation in South Africa mirror the global challenges faced by many nations. However, South Africa’s situation presents unique hurdles, including:
The need for economically viable technologies that can be practically implemented.
Navigating the socio-political complexities of transitioning the workforce away from coal dependency.
Overcoming infrastructure limitations, especially constrained electricity transmission capacities.
The impact that potential UK regulations on the horizon such as the Carbon Border Adjustment Measurement (CBAM) on scope three emissions could have on South Africa’s exported goods to the UK and European Union.
Securing funding avenues for the execution of pilot projects.
The energy transition in the country necessitates sustained, long-term changes. Addressing these challenges often involves forging research and commercial partnerships that unfold gradually. This gradual approach is about finding the right methods and pace to ensure that existing workforces can transition effectively into new employment opportunities as well as minimising unemployment rates. Additionally, the process is influenced by policy and regulatory uncertainties. The South African government requires the best possible evidence and analysis to make informed decisions in the face of change.
Certain sectors of South Africa’s industries are taking proactive steps to significantly reduce their carbon emissions. UK innovation holds the potential to not only expedite these efforts but also provide support for those industries in their early stages of decarbonisation. Key areas of opportunity include:
Developing a hydrogen economy, and the role it plays in addressing energy security.
Deploying necessary infrastructure.
Introducing technological solutions to enhance energy security and minimise the impact of load shedding and energy shortages.
Pokuwa Strong and Matt Joss meet with Sean Jordan-Kirwan South Africa Country Director at Department for International Trade
South Africa Hydrogen & Industrial Decarbonisation Project