Coal is the mainstay of the South African energy system, meeting around 70% of primary energy demand. The 2013 Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity however sets out a long-term diversification of the power mix and moves towards lightening the carbon footprint of the energy sector.
While the options to diversify the country's electricity mix appear diverse, the affordability of electricity supply looms as a key concern and, potentially, a constraint on the diversification agenda. The structure of consumption and of spending on electricity is skewed towards higher income groups, with the richest 20% of the population accounting for more than half of the total. In recent polling conducted by the Department of Energy, three-quarters of South Africans stated that the priority for government energy policy should be to keep electricity prices low: economic considerations outweighed other priorities by a considerable margin. Regarding the future fuel mix, nearly a third of respondents agreed with the statement: “it does not matter which source, as long as it is the cheapest”. But a quarter of respondents explicitly supported renewable energy sources, with a further 14% placing emphasis on sources that are not damaging to the environment.
The government will face complex choices as it pursues its objectives of diversifying and reducing the environmental impact of the country's energy mix, and needs to pursue an active policy of public engagement in the debate. But South Africa’s combination of integrated policymaking, strong regulation, well-designed incentives for low carbon investment including private investment, greater efficiency and regional integration gives it enviable strength for the task.