Dipuo opts for solar energy

Anna Majavu

Anna Majavu


South Africa's new minister of energy Dipuo Peters has promised to make sure that South Africa's free and available energy resource - the sun - does not go to waste during her term of office.

A passionate fan of solar power, the 49-year-old Peters worked her way up from being a social worker to a member of the Northern Cape provincial government, and then MEC for health in the province.

Perhaps wanting to move away from the shame of rampant shack fires caused by candles, and deaths by electrocution from illegal connections, the ANC has created a new ministry focusing solely on energy. Previously, energy was bundled together with minerals in one ministry.

Coming straight from the Northern Cape premier's office, Peters says "energy is the blood that runs in the system. The party and president want to make sure that Africa is no longer seen as a dark continent".

A regional organiser for the South African Domestic Workers Union in the 1980's, Peters is determined to use energy to improve the lot of women.

In an interview at her new office in Parliament, she said she was hellbent on giving the 80percent of rural women who still don't have access to electricity a better life.

Her mission is to make sure that women three generations from now will benefit from the energy plans she puts in place during her term of office.

"Energy is supposed to relieve women of the burden of carrying a household so that they can go out and make a livelihood," she says.

"I have to make it possible that our women - and men - no longer go into the veld to cut indigenous and other protected trees to create fuel but that they have access to clean and renewable energy".

As part of her plan, Peters wants South Africans fortunate enough to have a steady supply of electricity to save at least 10percent per day. As a start, she is working on a plan with the public works department to make sure that government buildings save as much electricity as possible.

She says her department will also investigate gas as an alternate, viable energy source, "so that our communities should not forever be reliant on electricity for everything".

A major part of her work will be to see that 20percent of energy in all homes comes from an alternative source, like solar power.

"We in South Africa have a lot of wasted solar energy - hours of sunlight that we don't capture and store as an energy source. What stops us in places like Northern Cape and Free State, where there is a lot of sun, from ensuring that all new construction is connected to solar power?" she asks.

But before she can do that, she will have to deal with discontent over Eskom's plans to increase the price of electricity by 34percent.

Peters does not make firm commitments on this point. She says the price increase, coming during a recession, will hit the poor hardest. But, "there will be opportunities for the public to make inputs so that people can understand what informs the necessary price increases", she says.

She also sidesteps questions about Sasol's role in increasing petrol prices, which leads to food and transport price hikes.

Cosatu has called for Sasol to be nationalised. Even new deputy transport minister Jeremy Cronin said in a speech recently that something must be done about the company, which is partially owned by the state.

Cosatu has criticised Sasol for putting fuel prices up every time the oil price rises internationally, even though Sasol produces petrol from coal, not oil.

Sasol also charges local businesses 40percent more to buy PVC than it charges international companies. Cronin says that because Sasol produces 90percent of all raw PVC, which is used to make plastic and polystyrene products, its practice of inflating prices "undermines job creation".

Peters says her department will ask Sasol "what informs these processes".

But she cautions that "when we engage, we want to create a platform where people have a better life and that better life does not translate into situations where we run down institutions".

Another area to keep an eye on is government's plans to spend R700billion on building nuclear power stations. These were driven, somewhat secretively, by former public enterprises minister Alec Erwin, but put on hold after Thabo Mbeki was removed as president.

"Beneficiation of uranium (generating fuel from nuclear power) is one of the key areas the ANC is talking about," Peters says.

She says government still has to take a decision on whether to proceed with the expensive nuclear power stations.