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South African biomass energy: little heeded but much needed

Belynda Petrie, Duncan Macqueen

IIED Briefing, 4 pages

South Africa badly needs more energy. Heavy reliance on large-scale coal and a centralised grid is no solution, especially given agreed Long Term Mitigation Scenarios. The largest renewable energy source is biomass energy but mostly in the form of wood fuel for cooking and heating. Two modern attempts to develop South Africa’s biomass energy potential — the Howick wood pellet plant, and the Tstsikamma biomass plant — failed. But only just, and this was mostly due to local market conditions and stand-offs in agreeing purchase agreements with Eskom (the public energy provider), not insuperable technological difficulties. More coherent incentives for domestic biomass energy market development within South Africa are needed, both for more efficient wood pellet stoves and also for biomass electricity, if South African citizens, and particularly its poorer communities, are to have secure access to energy.

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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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Improving people’s access to sustainable energy

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