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Energy Indaba: Africa not lighting the way yet

22/02/2012

As the energy indaba taking place at Sandton Convention Centre draws to a close we all have arms full of documents, books, magazines and reading material pitching to be part of our energy solution – but we most want to know is how we are moving forward as a country and as a continent.

The exhibition floor, that is open to the public, has 89 exhibitors, many of them from the Asian bloc, namely China, South Korea, Taiwan, even Malaysia, and many of them looking at the solar panel industry. Given Africa’s huge potential for solar power this presence is almost obvious but what isn’t so obvious is why there are so fewer South African businesses showcasing their technology.

Liz Hart, Managing Director of the Africa Energy Indaba, says. “The costs are prohibitive and many of the local players are involved in solar installations and characteristically the conference attendees, not exhibitors.”

“The natural resources here are huge. We could power up the whole of Africa and parts of Europe with the sun but we are not making sufficient use of this opportunity. China, they are looking for new markets and they see the opportunity here.”

Other players on the exhibition floor were smatterings of government departments. Eskom had a stand promoting how to save electricity, Coega was there talking about their various projects, wind turbines featured but what was missing, with the odd, small exception was vehicles – hybrids and electrical. Granted, the exhibition and indaba had a focus on energy generation, but the public identification with transport and its effect on our consumption and waste is a hot topic.

During the closing remarks of the Indaba, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan was delivering his budget projections for 2012. In those projections, carbon tax (the need to price carbon emissions and the phasing in of a tax instrument for this purpose), an as yet unimplemented tax but one that has the energy sector sitting up with attention. If the tax is there, industry players expect a further push into renewable energy. In the same speech, electricity levies are set to increase as well as fuel levies.

Brian Statham, Africa Energy Indaba conference chair says, “From government we need clear intent of purpose, we need clarity of process, but we also need efficiency of purpose”.

It is clear from delegates at the conference, many of them in political positions, the often they rely on government to give them the security they need to forecast and strategically invest in alternative energy sources to guarantee the future development of their countries. After all, while investing in new technologies may create jobs the best job creator is ensuring access to energy any way that it can be done. That is why, in Africa, there are so many small rural solutions sitting right next to national hydro-electric or nuclear plans requiring billions of dollars in investment.

Gordhan himself says that just under R300 billion is outlined for investment in the energy sector. Plans seem to be in the works.

However, Statham says, “Planning gives you confidence but Africa is not for sissies.” Although this sentiment may not hold true for South Africa, the concern is shared by Indaba speaker Anthony Sykes who works for an international bank that is looking for projects to invest through in Africa, “Things are done differently here.”

All that said, exhibitors and delegates at the indaba are calling it a success. After all, one of the purposes of its existence, say organisers, is to put people into contact with each other.

Energy demand is going nowhere. Mike Rossouw, Chairman of the Energy Intensive Users Group of South Africa, says, “We are facing enormous challenges and the actual dire situation is not coming across from Eskom – blackouts are real”

But on that front, things were buzzing and with the hopeful continuing removal of barriers to trade, entrepreneurs will find their own solutions to meet demand within the carefully planned framework outlined by government.

The indaba closes today after a roundtable session discussing the projects on the continent and the business opportunities thereof.

This piece was originally written for The New Age. Read it on their site here

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