Energy Future

Peter Willis, South African Director of University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership attend a lively discussion on 6th June about pathways for energy in the future.  The discussion revealed a number of complex dilemmas facing both Eskom and other role-players.

Willis writes a short reflection on the discussion, setting down some thoughts about the central challenge of decision-making in relation to energy, water and climate. He stresses that the thoughts are his own opinions. 


Following the Eskom NGO Forum Deep Dive workshop on Water and Climate Change
Held at Megawatt Park on 6th June 2014
A Personal Note and Suggestion by Peter Willis (facilitator)
It became plain during the discussions at this workshop that whoever seeks to make genuinely responsible decisions about long-term strategy, policy or investment in the field of South African energy needs to take account of a host of complex, interacting variables. At the workshop we looked at electricity provision though the lenses of just water and climate change and very quickly two realities emerged:
1.    The quantity and quality of available water resources and the foreseeable changes in Southern Africa’s climate impose extremely significant constraints on the future generation and distribution of electricity for the region’s people and businesses. In other words they are highly material issues, even if only in terms of financial risk.
2.    They are also extremely complex, each of them requiring an understanding of several different dimensions at once. So there are very few simple guidelines a decision-maker can follow (exceptions might be “Temperatures in South Africa will steadily rise this century” and “Water must be treated as a very scarce resource”). Instead, the complexity of the interactions within the energy-water-climate system requires decision-makers to move beyond absolutes and simple assumptions and grapple with uncertainty and multiple frameworks.
At various moments in the workshop it was acknowledged that the decision-making processes currently in use within government – and in some cases also within Eskom – do not adequately take account of either of the above realities. Water and climate constraints are often poorly represented in the decision-making processes that lead up to even the most important policies or largest investments, while those processes themselves are structured so that it is virtually impossible for the true nature of the water/energy/climate nexus to surface for proper strategic consideration by the key decision-makers.
Why is this is a problem? Because policies, strategies and investments are much more likely to have unintended negative consequences, or simply to fail, if they arise out of too partial an understanding of the relevant dynamics of the systems concerned.

What can be done about this?

Perfect awareness of the dynamics of such complex systems is an unreachable goal. We should not aim for perfection. But during the workshop participants referred to several areas of relevant decision-taking (usually by national or municipal government) where the possibility of durable, successful outcomes was greatly reduced by the consistent absence of a whole-system perspective or whole-system information. Even a modest improvement in this would probably yield markedly better outcomes.

A Suggestion

The Eskom NGO Forum may be in a uniquely good position to convene a systems-thinking dialogue that could bring these complex elements of the energy/water/climate nexus into focus for the purpose of helping senior decision-makers in government and the energy sector achieve greater clarity on the country’s energy options. First prize is to get relevant government officials into the room for this process, so they can witness at first hand the complex interacting factors that impact on policy outcomes. It would probably require more than one round of discussions, and a fair amount of data and analysis would need to be introduced, to make the discussions evidence-based, but if properly and patiently done this should genuinely empower them to consider a wider spectrum of factors when coming to decisions relating to water, climate or energy.
There are various ways such a dialogue could be structured, but at this stage I just want to put the idea to the Forum members, as I think it responds to several heartfelt pleas expressed during the Deep Dive.
If this resonates with you, please don’t be shy – let me know and I can judge whether to put a more formal proposal to a Task Team of Eskom and NGO members for consideration as a project of the Forum.

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