The key role of domestic solar in reducing South Africa’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy generation is the subject of this opinion piece provided by Alison Groves, Regional Director, WSP in Africa.

Alison Groves, Regional Director, WSP in Africa. Image supplied by WSP in Africa.

Alison Groves, Regional Director, WSP in Africa. Image supplied by WSP in Africa.

There have been two significant legislative enablers for rooftop solar adoption in South Africa in the last year. The first change in regulations was in July 2022 that removed the 1 MW cap on private renewable energy generation without a licence.

The second enabler was the tax incentive programme announced in the 2023 Budget Speech, offering individual taxpayers up to 25% of the cost of solar PV panels in tax credit per household. Furthermore, the overall unbundling of the local solar market increased investment and competition, improving access to solar power technology in South Africa.

The result of all this has been a staggering 438% increase in solar PV imports from China alone in the first half of 2023.

While South Africa has shown a decrease of around 3% in carbon dioxide (MtCO₂) emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes between 2021 and 2022, the country remains among the top 15 largest emitters of carbon dioxide worldwide.

Power generation from coal fired power stations remains South Africa’s biggest greenhouse gas (GHG) contributor as the just transition to alternative energy has been slow to date, despite the abundance of solar and wind as renewable resources.

Out of the ongoing local power crisis, and since these key legislative changes came into place, renewable power generation capacity in South Africa has doubled in a year. It emphasises how every crisis can also be viewed as an opportunity to make strides, to innovate and to see things differently. It also demonstrates the willingness of individual South Africans to seek solutions to the power crisis, even if they can only make a difference in their own homes.

The discussion around green buildings, to date, has been fairly elitist. Solar PV was seen as unaffordable to all but high-end residential and commercial buildings. The COVID-19 pandemic mandated that people work from home and this culture has been sustained in today’s hybrid locality approach to work. With loadshedding severely compromising the ability to work effectively from home, the need to become energy self-reliant became pressing.  The dramatic increase in the international oil price has made the adoption of diesel-fuelled generators unaffordable, not to mention noisy and dirty, and this has facilitated the rapid uptake of renewable energy solutions for the home.

Furthermore, with this new legislation, rooftop solar becomes far more accessible to more South African households. And this, in turn, makes it easier for individual South Africans to be part of the NetZero solution at home. It cannot be understated just how transformative these legislative changes have been in the South African market.

To take this one-step further, municipalities and utilities must find a solution that will more readily allow households to feed excess solar power onto the grid. Making cheaper, more sustainable energy available for distribution in the urban environment will alleviate the pressure on utilities and the municipalities to deliver electricity and indirectly benefit lower-income households that cannot afford solar installations.

Some municipalities, including the City of Cape Town, the City of Johannesburg and the City of Tshwane, have started to implement feed-in tariffs for households, allowing those that can generate excess power to feed back into the grid. The debate at the moment is around whether or not the feed-in tariffs are sufficient to off-set the grid connection fee – particularly for households on pre-paid electricity that will have to switch to post-paid to qualify for feed-in – and the outcome of the discussion varies from city to city. But it is a positive step in the right direction for South Africa to achieve both GHG emission reductions and positive social impact in its move towards the green economy.

The opportunity that domestic solar holds for local social impact is just as important as the reduction of GHG emissions, especially given South Africa’s youth unemployment rate of almost 60%. The renewable energy industry is estimated to create more than 800 000 jobs by 2050, and domestic solar installation and maintenance will contribute to this number.

Beyond directly creating jobs, we are already seeing positive social impacts from the rapid adoption of domestic solar. Even though solar panels risk being seen as a solution only for the wealthy, the massive uptake of private residential solar power has had the positive knock-on effect – less demand for electricity from the national grid means that loadshedding is reducing. And private households are beginning to take up the opportunity to feed-in excess power to the grid where transmission and distribution systems are sufficiently developed to accept it, and cost/benefit ratio makes sense.

This translates to lower-income South Africans, who can’t afford domestic solar installations, indirectly having improved access to electricity. And the impact of access to electricity on social challenges is well documented. Access to reliable electricity enables improved health services, education, communication, access to water and economic participation.

So, in thinking about renewable energy and climate change in general, we must remember that we can make a difference in our “small” individual actions at home. The impact of South Africans adopting home solar power is already visible and can only continue to make a positive difference to lower-income households as grid feed-in becomes more prevalent.