The main disruption in the global energy milieu over the past five years has been a “disruption in the mindset”, Engie CEO Isabelle Kocher asserted during a recent panel discussion at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland. In fact, she argued that this shift in thinking (about the role and cost of renewable energy) had been even more powerful than any technological disruption over the period.
Kocher herself knows one or two things about disruption, being the first Frenchwoman to lead a CAC 40 company and having overseen a major restructuring at the utility, which has sold or closed more than 10 GW of coal production, brought 6 GW of renewable energy on line and secured a further 6 GW.
She attributed the change largely to an underlying attitudinal shift within civil society. Citizens, she argued, were looking for a model of development that reconciled economic growth with the common good. Fortuitously for the electricity sector, that aspiration coincided with a sharp fall in the cost of onshore wind and solar photovoltaic technologies, which meant that there was no longer an “arbitrage” between value creation and common good in the electricity sector. “We can do both at the same time.”
That insight is relevant not only for South Africa’s immediate electricity choices, but also for the choices this country will have to make across the economic-policy spectrum. As the country emerges from a prolonged period of self-induced political and policy paralysis, there is now an opportunity to look afresh at ways to deal with our most intractable problems. Without doubt, there are many areas where a mindset disruption could help improve prospects. However, a change is philosophy in the areas of energy, education and mining could deliver significant and sustainable societal gains.
In energy, South Africa needs to move on from the tired debate about whether or not it is feasible to scale up variable renew- able energy (VRE). South Africa has formidable solar and wind resources and the cost of both technologies is now cheaper, even after backup and grid stabilisation investments, than the alternatives. The are now several international templates that manage high VRE-penetration rates. What is required now is the policy vision and certainty that support a large-scale and consistent investment programme.
In education, there is no question that the entire value chain is in need of intensive care and improvement. However, the focus has to begin to shift from higher education to improved early childhood development and nutrition. Indeed, it is on these two pillars that the entire future of equal education and equal opportunity rests.
In mining, meanwhile, a quick win can be achieved by replacing government’s current mindset of obstruction and opacity with transparency and cooperation. Such a shift would go a long way towards stimulating investment and transformation in both mineral extraction and exploration and development.
Without question, the mindset of most South Africans was disrupted for the better in December. The key now is to channel this renewed clarity of thought into concrete and workable policies that foster inclusivity and growth.