CEO Blog

by Brenda Martin

Brenda is an energy policy and planning practitioner. She has worked as an implementer of small-scale renewable energy projects, a researcher on issues of electricity planning (particularly as these relate to renewable energy and nuclear power) and a facilitator of transition process. She is interested in South Africa’s continued socio-political energy transition toward a larger share of renewable power supply and the realisation of opportunities for both energy security and socio-economic growth within this.

Environmental Authorisations

An apparently unrelated issue is the possibility to have wind clusters where concentrated development takes place in an area with a good wind regime and where the grid is able to evacuate the power (or is upgraded to be able to do so).

If however the authorities should demarcate an area/s where wind farm development is preferred and simultaneously set less requirements on the developer to secure environmental approvals and/or speeds up the process for projects within the “zone”, a nexus is created between wind “clusters” and the process to secure environmental approval. 

Such a possibility has now been mooted for South Africa, with potentially significant consequences. SAWEA has been ably represented in these discussions by various Working Group members and a full position paper has been developed and is available to members (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.). Below, the most important aspects of the process and SAWEA’s position are discussed by Duncan Ayling, Board Member who chairs the Environmental Working Group and who has prior experience of these matters in Europe. He was assisted by Francis Jackson. Readers are encouraged to contribute their insights.




The National Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has been inundated with renewable energy projects seeking environmental approvals. The work load is very heavy and present authorization system has been found to be sub-optimal. To address these concerns, a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) led by CSIR has been initiated. The endeavour is to identify geographical areas most suitable for the rollout of wind and solar PV energy projects and the supporting electricity grid network. The process will also provide a platform for coordination between the various Government Departments who have a mandate in terms of issuing environmental authorizations or consents to allow for a more streamlined authorization process. It is intended that through the SEA process, all participating Departments will be able to pre-assess the requirements for which they have a mandate and be in a position to either issue general authorizations, exemptions, or delist energy applications based on adherence to certain conditions or guidelines.

In short then, the aim is to create zones where doing business will be easier and quicker for developers of wind and solar projects. Strategic Infrastructure Projects (SIPs) - of which renewable energy is a part (SIP 8) - have been decreed by the president. There is thus political will at the highest level to improve the efficiency of doing business in South Africa.

It is projected that by the first quarter of 2014, the Renewable Energy Development Zones (REDZs) will be submitted for Cabinet approval for the rollout of wind in the Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and Western Cape provinces. Similar plans exist for solar. The REDZs will allow for wind and solar PV energy projects and the associated grid infrastructure to be developed in these preferred areas without requiring environmental authorization, subject to certain conditions and development protocols.

Approach and methodology

Based on wind resource potential and taking into consideration environmental and social sensitivities and constraints, the best suited zones for renewable energy development in each of the provinces under investigation will be identified through GIS investigations. The latest available data from all relevant departments will be utilized. Specialist inputs will be used where required. Issues that cannot be adequately addressed at a level to allow authorization or delisting by any of the competent departments will be addressed by a site specific protocols. Some studies at a level required by an EIA are likely to still be required.

The SEA will include a comprehensive stakeholder consultation process aimed at allowing all interested and affected parties to be part of the decision making process.

The SEA process, including the development of the site specific guideline document and associated approvals, will be designed to function within the existing legal framework and satisfy all relevant legislation to allow the competent authorities to provide general of conditional authorizations for the REDZs. The SEA outcome (REDZs) will be based on a defendable process that will allow the delisting of geographical areas from NEMA listed activities.

SAWEA concerns

The general aim of easing the consenting process is supported. What is of concern is the unintended consequences that may result. Broadly, SAWEA has flagged that delisting may not be the best solution. One alternative would be an SEA that lists and publishes environmental sensitivities. This would guide developers away from high sensitivity areas. This approach would be appropriate to the level of uncertainty inherent in such a study. Perhaps the most pressing broad concern is that geographically defined REDZ may distort the playing field in a competitive procurement market. The investor confidence that underpins the participation of the private sector in developing power production capacity in South Africa could be jeopardised by this.

In addition, SAWEA has several specific concerns relating to matters like the validity of the assumptions used in the SEA process, the accuracy of data, the appropriateness of major exclusion criteria used, and the question of whether the residual permitting requirements in the REDZ might not constitute a hurdle as formidable and time-consuming as the EIA process itself.  Additionally, there is disquiet that a “gold rush style” land grab could occur within REDZs, once it is known where they are and especially if they are insufficiently numerous and or large. This would increase land values, increase the possibility of corrupt practices and may lead to an anti-competitive situation vis-a-vis the competitive REIPPPP. Indeed, care has to be taken that the SEA and REDZ do not become effectively a pre-bid selection process, compromising the REIPPPP tender integrity.

Moreover, there is the position of projects outside the REDZ that must not be jeopardised by the REDZ demarcation. While it is easy to pay lip service to the fact that in law these projects are unaffected, on a practical level it is possible that the bureaucracy will favour projects inside the REDZ.

SAWEA’s potential positions on the SEA

Two potential approaches have been identified.

The first suggests contesting the SEA’s geographically defined delisting approach in principle and lobbying for an SEA that gathers socio-environmental sensitivity data and provides approvals risk information to the industry in a spatial format that can be interrogated in detail. This would enable industry members to take most prudent decisions on which areas to pursue, given the likelihood of failure to receive Environmental Authorization, in combination with their own evaluation of commercial risks and constraints. This position would face the challenge that the program has already moved past the point of deciding on the approach and methodology.

The second approach entails conditionally supporting the SEA’s geographically defined delisting approach and lobbying to ensure the potential weaknesses in the process are addressed. Specific requirements would include DEA and DoE demonstrating written measures to ensure that authorizations outside REDZ would be fairly assessed and the SEA would not compromise the competitive tender under REIPPPP. SAWEA would require robust engagement and there would need to be a mechanism for regular updates to the SEA.

SAWEA members and other stakeholders are encouraged to forward their views. 

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