RDP Houses and Renewable energy
(revised; first posted in October 2009)
Empower the poor by making them farmers of energy.
South Africa faces several large problems, amongst them housing; job creation; steady income for unskilled people; water and energy shortages.
I believe that the RDP house can go a long way to addressing all these problems.
The world today
The age of Renewable Energy Technology is ready step onto the world stage, and it will be the lead actor for decades to come. Renewable Energy Technology will be the biggest and fastest generator of jobs seen in decades. The nations that make developing Renewable Energy Technology their top priority now; will be the leaders of tomorrow.
Africa has a tremendous advantage in this field precisely because it is energy poor.
Before the start of the IT age it was commonly believed that Africa would never catch up with the technology of the West. With the arrival of wireless technology Africa didn’t need to catch up, but within ten years simply leapfrogged into a future that it took the developed world decades to reach. Today Africa is in the same position to leapfrog over the unsustainable energy technology of the developed world and become energy rich using the latest renewable energy technology.
Investment in the development and creation of clean energy could become a major new industry in Africa; providing not just clean energy but clean jobs.
A government ruling in Germany, which obliges the national energy suppliers to buy energy at a set rate from all who produce energy from renewable resources, has seen Germany become one of the world’s biggest solar power producers; this is country that is not known for its sunny skies. The most exciting part of this is that many people are making a profit from their solar energy, turning what was just an ecologically friendly thing to do, into a form of sustainable income.
Imagine if , instead of spending billions on coal fire plants, money was rather invested in updating the national grid to allow for small energy producers to feed in energy. What if energy was an open trade commodity allowing small energy farmers to produce energy for their own use, and sell the surplus energy to the national grid thereby gaining direct benefits.
By a shift in thinking Africa could solve not just its energy problem buts its sustainable income problem.
The days of fossil fuel produced energy are drawing to a close. In the early 1980’s the World Wide Web was only four computers linked together on the West coast of America. This was a computer communications network only for the use of very highly qualified technicians. Fax machine were the seventh wonder of the world, Cell phones did not exist and wireless was something you listened to the daily news on. Today a world without surfing the web and constant telephonic connection is inconceivable. With energy the shift – once it starts – will be as dramatic. Already there is technology available that would be able to provide all the planets’ energy needs from clean renewable energies. The moment of decisive action is now.
The RDP house
In a world where Renewable Energy Technology is becoming central to all thinking, the RDP house should not be seen as just a basic social requirement, but central to the fiscal growth of a country. I believe the house of the future will be the catalyst for all the energy advances that we will make in the next decades and will sweep away thinking that we believe is entrenched and unchangeable.
The chronic housing/job shortage in South Africa combined with government commitment and control over the building of these houses and the governments stated aim to provide affordable energy to poverty-stricken and rural households makes the South African RDP house potentially the greatest nursery for clean Renewable Energy Technology in the world. Never has a government been presented with such an opportunity to promote and fund Renewable Energy
At the northern fringe of the sprawling Kayelitsha township outside Cape Town a project , which is the only ‘gold standard’ renewable energy project in Africa – Kuyasa – is being piloted. It is proving how a small addition of convenience and comfort can elevate the pride and hope of a community, turning their township into a close-knit neighbourhood.
My guide through this neighbourhood is visibly proud when I point out this very strong feeling of community. He is quick to tell me that the addition of this energy-saving device has changed the atmosphere of the entire neighbourhood and that this neighbourhood is the envy of those surrounding it, not just because of the convenience of hot water, but also because of the security the resulting close-knit community has brought.
In meeting with the NGO ‘South South North ’ who instigated the Kuyasa project, I learnt the difficulties of bringing sustainable energy to the people. While the housing policy includes sustainable development, it is difficult to put into practice. As the energy suppliers base all their decisions on demand; educating people about the possibilities of receiving free energy, and even the possibility of earning an income from producing energy would be counter productive to those who control the production of energy. But without education the demand will never arise.
It this oppressive atmosphere it has taken 5 years to get the project registered and productive, after 5 years only 2500 units are in place. This is far too slow.
While certain improvements in specifications have been made since the first RDP houses were built, the specifications of the current RDP house are basic in the extreme. When submitting a tender the consideration is only about landed costs. There is no incentive to build more energy-efficient houses .The recipients of the houses are insufficiently aware of the long-term advantage of living in an energy-efficient house, so no demand is made. But once the people do install their own eclectic geysers and experience their first winter in their new houses they are then shocked to find the cost of electricity. Owning an RDP house, built to the current standards, places an added financial burden on the inhabitants. Not just because of the maintenance of the poorly built house, but because the house is so energy hungry that it costs more to heat than their old shacks did. This is not just a huge cost to the inhabitants but also to the country.
The solution lies in the building specifications of the RDP house
With a simple mind shift that allows one to stop seeing RDP houses merely as low-cost housing, that must be constructed as quickly and cheaply as possible, to seeing these houses as potential energy farms , energy savers , income generators and finally as homes and stable communities.
In the face of the huge problem of just getting a roof over the head of every South African it is important not to lose sight of the day when every South African does have a roof, but one that is barely adequate. It is important to visualize a future where water is a luxury, energy from fossil fuels outlawed, and people are hampered by a constantly shrinking job market .Then, from this point of view, look back to where we are now and hopefully not have to say if only we did things differently from the beginning. To fix a thing after the fact is never as good or as inexpensive as to do it right from the beginning.
In 2008 the then Minister of Energy claimed that South Africa couldn’t supply the 100 000 solar heating systems they had planned for, because South Africa doesn’t have the capacity to build them. With a change in RDP housing building specifications South Africa could enter into global partnerships with companies that already have done the technological spade work, but are waiting for a large investor to allow them to scale up and, with scale, bring prices down. Changing the building specifications could provide the incentive for investors to build the factories, create the jobs, and invest in the future.
The renewable energy race has only just started, the future in clean energy has not yet been written. The Danish government is in the forefront of wind energy but their only distinction is that they are first. There are hundreds of new designs that promise to be far superior to today’s solar panels, and Denmark’s gigantic, but inefficient wind turbines. Exciting new ideas such as solar paint are being explored. RDP Housing building specifications could be the catalyst that will spur technology through tax incentives, design competitions and the assurance that there is a market, ready and waiting for the new energy creating devices
By turning the RDP houses into power houses, by demanding a passive ‘zero energy use’ standard (the house is designed as an energy producing unit which creates all its own energy) in the building specifications of the RDP house, these houses could instantly provide the scale needed to make new energy sources, new building methods and materials more cost-effective than traditional brick and mortar, fossil fuelled houses. In a society that is not yet dependant on six electrical gadgets to shine its shoes, and another four to brush its teeth, the concept of a zero energy use house is totally feasible with existing technology.
Future planning needs to include methods of sustainable income for those who might never enter the formal job market. With a change in building specifications the houses could become energy farms, by turning rooftops into solar fields. By doing this, the government could not only provide free energy to these households, but the houses could sell back energy to the national grid, producing income for the RDP household or for the government ; thereby offsetting an initial increase in building costs. Energy farming is an ideal solution for the poor as they use little energy themselves and can feed in the bulk of their power during the daylight hours. A small battery can be charged for the energy requirements of the household at night. Thereby making it a win-win situation for everybody. By integrating energy housing you can achieve not just shelter and stable society you can alleviate the growing energy crisis in the country and provide the poorest with a means of income.
The increase in building cost of the RDP housing energy unit should also been seen against the elimination of the need to build more power plants and electrical grids and the incalculable advantages for the health of the people and the planet. The high cost of installing solar energy is one that is much discussed and used as convenient excuse to continue using coal. However in the production of coal energy the cost and maintenance of the actual infrastructure is seldom mentioned or calculated into the price comparative. Looking to the future the price of fossil fuels will continue to rise. Solar energy prices are static once the infrastructure has been built, and paid back, there are some maintenance cost but no fuel costs. Coal might be cheap but the sun and wind are free. Given scale, the start-up costs of solar or wind energy will be a fraction of building a power plant.
With the use of renewable energy as a government standard, RDP developments that are planned in areas that are not yet connected to the national grid will not have to wait for this infrastructure. Renewable energy producers already exist that can provide all the energy requirements for a small community.
In the above argument I have not touched on the need to save water and the further possibility of sustainable income through the use of dry toilets but even these questions can be answered by changing the building specifications of RDP houses.
I believe the human settlements portfolio is the most important portfolio in South Africa and that by changing the specifications of the RDP house you can create houses that are heated and comfortable. Houses that supply their inhabitants with free energy and provide them with a source of income. You could provide industries with energy, save South Africans valuable water resource and turn our human waste into a sustainable nutritious totally ecologically friendly agricultural fertilizer
South African could leapfrog the world and become a leader in clean Renewable Energy Technology. Will you grab the chance?
In a nutshell
There are several pressing problems in South Africa today
Crime/lack of ownership
Set these problems against the government promise of
Houses for all
Affordable energy/free energy
Job creation/ sustainable income
Community shared ownership pride/decreased crime
The solution lies in the building specifications of the RDP house – by creating a building standard that aims at building the most energy-efficient houses ,all these problems can be addressed. With the scale of the RDP housing project that is already planned and budgeted for. The new building standards could lay the foundation for new industry, international investment, sustainable income for unskilled labour and job creation.
All RDP houses should from now on comply with basic passive energy housing standards
All RDP houses should be fitted with solar geysers Photovoltaic cells that feed directly into the national grid from which the community gets paid for all excess energy it creates.
All houses should be fitted with dry toilets, excluding the need for expensive waste pipes and water and providing the community with another sustainable income generating product. Fertilizer from human waste.
All RDP houses to be fitted with rain water tanks and recycling grey water run-off systems.
All RDP houses / groups of houses to be built with sufficient garden area to allow inhabitants to produce a portion of their own vegetables
A percentage of building in the RDP zone to be specifically set aside for commerce
The manufacture of all building materials for the RDP housing development to build as close to the RDP centre as possible
Bicycle tracks to be laid out with bicycle parking.
For outlying areas not yet linked to the national grid alternative energy sources should be the first consideration. High altitude wind turbines for small rural communities already exist.
LINKS; There are thousands more but these provide an inspirational start.
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