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South Africa: a case for Biomass?

Belynda Petrie

Research report

South Africa badly needs more energy. The government cannot keep up with demand for electricity and many rural communities lack adequate power. Heavy reliance on large-scale coal-fired power stations and a centralised grid is no solution – especially given that South Africa is ranked in the world’s top 20 carbon emitters, and has a prominent role in multilateral climate negotiations. Biomass energy potentially offers a sustainable solution, and it is already the largest renewable energy source in the mix; but mostly in the form of gathered fuelwood for cooking and heating, which brings its own environmental and health concerns. Burning wood pellets in wood stoves is a more efficient and non-polluting use of biomass, yet this technology is virtually unavailable, and recent significant attempts to generate biomass electricity or to manufacture wood pellets as biomass fuel have failed.

How can a thriving biomass sector be developed in South Africa? This paper looks closely at two attempts to develop wood pellets as a biomass fuel and biomass electricity: the Howick wood pellet plant and the Tsitsikamma biomass plant. Both plants eventually failed, but provide instructive case studies about the barriers and opportunities for developing the biomass sector in South Africa. The closure of the two plants was mostly due to stand-offs in agreeing purchase agreements with the public energy provider, and the difficulties of establishing a local market – not insuperable technological difficulties. More coherent incentives for biomass innovation systems are needed within South Africa, both for more efficient wood pellet stoves and also for biomass electricity, if South African citizens – particularly its poor – are to have secure energy access.

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Publication information

  • IIED code: 16045IIED
  • Published: Dec 2014 - IIED
  • Area: South Africa
  • Theme: Energy
  • ISBN: 978-1-78431-072-1
  • Language: English

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Petrie, B. 2014. South Africa: a case for Biomass? IIED, London.

Project information

One in five people around the world – 1.3 billion people – lack electricity to light their homes or run their businesses, while wealthy countries consume vast amounts of electricity every day. IIED’s energy team works to promote access to sustainable energy for the poorest communities and a more equitable consumption of energy resources. Energy access is an area of great inequity. Access to sustainable modern energy services underpins health, education and livelihoods and increases resilience to climate change – yet millions of people have no access to electricity and use dangerous and unhealthy fuels for lighting and cooking.

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