Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS
Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS

SA IS groping in the dark. What a paradox in the country of endless sunshine. Following the crisis in electricity supply four of Eskom’s executives were suspended by the parastatal’s board, while Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa took great pains to reassure the country "there is light at the end of the tunnel". This was just minutes before we heard of the R8bn overspent to buy diesel, the unprecedented tariff hike of 25% for consumers and Standard & Poor’s rating downgrade.

We may have become used to this state of affairs as part of life in times of load shedding. But the reality is that this is just the tip of the iceberg of an approach to energy production and consumption that is obsolete, dysfunctional, unjust and polluting. SA’s policy makers, but also many business leaders, like it "big". A senior Eskom executive is reported as admitting Eskom’s business model relies on three imperatives, "big coal, big nuclear and big networks".

So it is no surprise that the solution to our problems has been found in allegedly futuristic megaplants, such as Medupi and Kusile. Initially estimated to cost R70bn, Medupi has cost R120bn so far. Some say the real costs are more than R150bn, making it the most expensive coal plant ever built in the world. The delays affecting Medupi have also had a knock-on effect on Kusile, which is expected to become operational in 2017, at a cost of more than R118bn.

We are broke and without enough power, but have we at least learnt the lesson? Not at all. SA is set to embark on an ambitious nuclear programme, at a time when more experienced and more tech-savvy societies are phasing out nuclear.

Historically, large power stations have routinely exceeded estimated costs, in SA and elsewhere. They have also experienced delays and other problems and seldom met production targets. Yet, as huge sums of (public) money are involved, politicians and their advisers still favour them. To its credit, Eskom long ago highlighted the fact that the power-generating infrastructure was old and inefficient and systematic innovations were needed to keep up with demand. But the obsession with "big is beautiful" blinded our policy makers once again. As a result, they bet on multibillion-rand large-scale initiatives to be funded by private investors (the miraculous "market"), but they pulled out, because these ventures are not lucrative unless the state or international bodies fund them with taxpayers’ money.

Megaprojects also pose significant security risks. As they are vertically structured, the failure of one component can endanger the entire system. Medupi has already experienced cascading breakdowns and we cannot rule out that it will happen regularly in the future. The same can be said about nuclear power, which takes the security issue to the next level. The US government’s concerns about our enriched-uranium stock at Pelindaba may be exaggerated, but sitting with giant nuclear plants amid our cities in an age characterised by terrorist attacks, structural failures and social unrest is not exactly a comforting thought.

Bespoke energy plants (whose huge investments are a fertile terrain for corruption) are a relic of the past, when big and heavy infrastructure was perceived as a sign of progress. They are like the pyramids or the Eiffel Tower, but in a time of nanotechnology. They are like the first computing machines, which used to occupy entire buildings and needed huge investment, in a time of iPads and smartphones connected through the "cloud". They rely on top-down control and secrecy, when the future is about openness and sharing. They are polluting and wasteful, when we need truly green technology if we are to deal with climate change successfully.

Not only does "big energy" deplete our finances and seldom meet production needs, but it is also very inefficient in distribution terms. The energy produced in these big plants must travel far to reach the users and our grid is like a colander, full of holes. Producing more energy in the existing distribution system is an exercise in madness. There is no guarantee that improved production will result in better provision to citizens, let alone to the more marginalised communities. For as long as our system of distribution is not addressed, the priority given to increased production is likely to be a dangerous distraction.

What we need is "small energy". The Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) is an important step in the right direction. It allows for private producers to bid for grid-connected renewable energy tenders. Several projects have been awarded and more are lining up, yet the initiative will fall short of its potential while it sets a cap on bidding opportunities and centralises control.

What we desperately need is an innovative system of production and consumption of energy that happens at the local level and allows everyone, not just recognised bidders, to produce, consume and share electricity. In many European countries, a feed-in system has given households and businesses an economic incentive to produce energy, to meet their own needs and/or sell to the national provider.

In SA, this shift will require calling into question the efficiency of "big grids". Some form of investment in the national grid is required to reduce waste and connect new sources (such as photovoltaic and wind). But in the near future we need to think creatively about "smart grids" that connect users and producers among themselves and distribute energy flows according to their most efficient location.

The cost of distributed generation has already fallen dramatically. To help this further, banks and other financial industries should support households and firms willing to install roof-mounted panels, microwind turbines and the like. In most "developed" countries, such as Germany, Denmark, Spain and the UK, this is already a reality — and in many African "developing economies", such as Algeria and Egypt.

Our government announced a feed-in tariff scheme in 2009 but then abandoned it in favour of the REIPPPP. We urgently need to start from where we left off. The National Development Plan mandates a move away from coal, giving more space to wind, solar and other renewables. This is good not only for the environment, but for the economy too. It is also key to achieving social justice, as it empowers local communities.

The Africa Progress Panel has singled out microgrids as the most intelligent way forward for energy distribution. As we improve technology and localise production and consumption (thus reducing the waste associated with travelling long distances), energy intensity will decline significantly. The future is energy democracy: a universe of micro-and small producers of energy, which leverage their creativity to provide sustainable energy solutions, yet in clear regulatory frameworks. In the end, this is the very essence of democracy: we need to "empower" ourselves to be truly free.

Fioramonti is the director of the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation at the University of Pretoria.