UP EXPERT OPINION: A Just Energy Transition must incorporate a Just Technology Transition

Posted on June 14, 2023

South Africa, along with the rest of the world, is confronted with the task of achieving a Just Energy Transition that leaves no one behind. This great challenge implies transitioning our economies and societies to be more sustainable and equitable.

A crucial aspect of this endeavour is transitioning our energy systems from fossil fuels to renewable and cleaner sources. The impacts of the Just Energy Transition go beyond socioeconomic effects. Severe environmental and health implications for the South African population are undoubtedly attributed to the country’s dependence on coal for electricity generation.

The ongoing energy crisis in South Africa exacerbates the triple challenge faced by the nation, which entails meeting the population’s energy needs, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and minimising socioeconomic losses.

This complex situation prompts us to ask: how can we achieve these objectives? Is there a common factor that unites them?

Before we can address these questions, we must determine whether South Africa is going through a Just Energy Transition (JET) that is simultaneously a Just Technology Transition (JTT) that incorporates the advancements in energy technology.

Technological advancements

A JTT that considers new energy supply technology, artificial intelligence (AI), storage, green hydrogen, the technical divide, access to finance, income inequality and energy poverty is necessary to achieve a JET in South Africa.

“For South Africa to make the necessary energy shift, a mix of energy supply technologies, including solar, wind and geothermal power, must be adopted. These innovations can lower greenhouse gas emissions, enhance energy security and generate jobs.”

However, to advance accessible and cheap renewable energy options, deploying these technologies must prioritise underprivileged groups, particularly in rural areas. Policies should, for instance, support community-owned renewable energy initiatives and offer financial assistance to low-income households installing renewable energy systems to ensure no one is left behind.

Integrating AI into energy systems may significantly impact the energy transition. Research has shown that AI can increase energy efficiency, decrease energy use and maximise the performance of renewable energy systems.

While investing in retraining and reskilling programmes for workers whose jobs are at risk owing to the transition, the deployment of AI must ensure equitable employment development. It is therefore the role of policymakers to ensure that underserved groups can access and afford AI technologies.

Another alternative for JET is energy storage, essential for a sustainable energy system. It can help balance electricity supply and demand, reduce grid instability and promote the integration of renewable energy sources.

Energy storage is considered an essential technological product to “guarantee demand fulfilment regardless of the weather”. Energy economists have stressed the important role that energy storage can play in rural communities’ social integration and empowerment. Its adoption in underserved communities should be given priority in policies, which should also support community-owned energy storage projects and subsidise the installation of energy storage systems in low-income homes.

Green hydrogen, on the other hand, presents a promising solution for decarbonising various sectors, including industries, heating systems, transportation and more. However, it is crucial to prioritise the accessibility and affordability of green hydrogen distribution, particularly for marginalised communities.

To achieve this, it is imperative to foster the development of green hydrogen technologies and implement policies that ensure underserved populations can readily access and afford the necessary infrastructure.

Green hydrogen has the potential to create a positive feedback loop for future renewable energy-based electricity grids because it can give power systems the much-needed flexibility and function as a buffer for intermittent renewable energy sources.

In fact, the extra energy generated by conventional and renewable power plants can be stored as hydrogen and used to generate electricity (using fuel cells or power systems), heat (using combustion), or both (using co-generation). Consequently, the emission of greenhouse gases is significantly reduced, contributing to a more sustainable and cleaner energy landscape.

Closing the gap

The existing economic and social disparities in South Africa are worsened by the technological divide – which if bridged, can steer the country towards a JET. Opportunities for economic growth and social inclusion are restricted by a lack of access to digital technology and dependable internet connectivity, particularly in underprivileged communities.

To close this gap, policymakers should fund and support digital literacy initiatives, inexpensive and dependable internet connectivity, and infrastructure development to deploy renewable energy technology, which is significantly hampered by limited funding.

The adoption of renewable energy systems may be constrained by their high upfront costs, especially for low-income homes and small companies. It is therefore essential for policymakers to give low-income individuals and small companies priority access to financing to foster and encourage the adoption of renewable energy technology.

New technologies can deepen income inequalities and widen the societal/digital divide for numerous reasons, such as access to technology and its cost. The high cost of new technologies limits low-income households’ access to energy-efficient solutions, making it difficult for them to benefit from the transition. Consequently, only high-income households can afford energy-efficient technologies and can thus benefit from the transition.

New technologies also require new skills and knowledge, and in developing countries, limited access to quality education contributes to the digital divide. Given these dynamics, an important question one should ask is whether the adoption of green technologies will benefit the South African economy and society in the long run – although we need to transition and upskill the current generation to be successful in the next “technological revolution”.

A JTT that prioritises underserved communities, equitable job creation, energy storage deployment, green hydrogen access, technological divide bridging, access to finance and energy poverty reduction is crucial for this transition.

Policymakers must strengthen the mechanisms through which green innovation can positively impact emission reductions. Although this sounds straightforward, it has proven to be a challenge to low- and middle-income countries. Therefore, policymakers must ensure these issues are thoroughly and intentionally considered in the energy transition process to promote a more sustainable and equitable energy system in South Africa.

Achieving the goal of a Just Energy Transition in South Africa necessitates adopting a comprehensive and proactive policymaking approach that addresses the short-term consequences of new technology adoption.

A transition that prioritises communities, equitable job creation and equal opportunities and access to finance, education and fulfilment of basic needs, will result in a sustainable energy system that can enhance the well-being of all South Africans.

This article first appeared on the Daily Maverick on 12 June 2023. Professors Roula Inglesi-Lotz, Heinrich Bohlmann, Margaret Chitiga-Mabugu and Dr Jessika Bohlmann are researchers in the Energy Economics Unit in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences at the University of Pretoria.

- Author Roula Inglesi-Lotz, Heinrich Bohlmann, Margaret Chitiga-Mabugu and Jessika Bohlmann

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