The energy sector is very significant and without it, poverty is inescapable considering how important it has been to human existence. In addition, for the fundamental human needs to be met, living standards to be raised, human health to be maintained, and poverty to be reduced, access to electricity is necessary. However, international law does not specifically acknowledge the right to access electricity as a human right, but the United Nations and other international organisations recognise the right to access electricity as one of the keys needed to enhance human welfare and achieve sustainable development. The right to health, education, and a living adequate standard are just a few of the other rights that are widely recognised to be dependent on having access to electricity. Thus, the significance of having access to electricity is therefore recognized by many regional and international human rights as a necessity. In essence, a sufficient standard of living requires having access to basic services like electricity.
In 1989, the “Electrification for All” campaign was started in South Africa by the company ESKOM, which was founded by Electricity de France. Since 2002, twenty to fifty kilowatt-hours of free electricity per month have been given to low-income households on the premise that this is enough to power essential appliances such as radio, electric kettle, and a small black-and-white TV. In South Africa, the constitutions, national energy policies or programmes, and legislative measures of the independent practices of the provinces, multilateral political declarations, tribunals, and regional or national courts have been indicted as the cornerstones for defining the potential scope and content of an independent human right to receive energy, as well as the most likely duties and obligations of electricity service providers in a liberalised market framework.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights recognizes the right to the best possible education and health, both of which depend on having access to electricity.
In addition, the Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7), which is universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all, is one of the non-binding SDGs that the United Nations adopted in 2015. The United Nations’ Sustainable Energy for All initiative has made universal access to energy by 2030 a key target. The implication of all the rights and goals is to ensure that a sufficient standard of living necessitates having access to fundamental services like electricity.
To encourage economic growth, in developing countries the provision of access to contemporary services should be one of the key goals. The three “Rs”-Rural electrification which is considered as the process, the use of renewable energy technologies (the means) and power sector reforms (the catalyst) may also improve access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa in which only 17% have access to electricity. However, due to limited budgets and strain on the institutions involved, in the energy sector, expanding energy services has been extremely difficult in South Africa and many other developing countries. In the context of human rights, access to electricity is firmly established. Creating laws and rules that give priority access to power to vulnerable groups, including low-income households or rural areas. The wealth of natural resources in South Africa (SA) has influenced the level of industrialization, placing her at the top among African countries. There are several government policies to address the energy sector. After the 1994 democratic elections, SA has undergone major changes in many areas of the economy, including energy, and has readjusted key aspects of government policy to improve income levels and livelihoods. There are several obstacles militating against achieving the goal of access to electricity which is a fundamental human right.
What is missing?
The following are the missing but necessary parts to accomplishing this goal of access to electricity:
Affordability: The South African constitution prioritises the right to sufficient housing over the right to electricity access because it takes land, a home, and the necessary services are important for the right to access electricity to be a reality. Hence, Electricity must be as affordable as possible when access is defined in this way.
South Africa’s government continues to place a larger focus on meeting fundamental necessities than achieving cost-reflective prices in this market. It is important that the Government and other stakeholders make access to electricity affordable so even low-income earners can afford and have access to electricity. Expanding access to affordable electricity services for all facets of society by offering subsidies or financial incentives to stimulate private sector investment in clean energy infrastructure projects. This was also recently supported by Mike Hutchings, a Reuters report which explains that the reduction in debt is positive for Eskom as it strengthens its balance sheet and eases pressure on cash flow, allowing the company to focus on investing in and maintaining existing assets. Poverty may also hamper access to electricity so executing specific programs created especially for underrepresented people may aid to overcome additional barriers that they may encounter.
Lack of Infrastructure: The lack of infrastructure is a major impediment to supplying electricity to all citizens in many developing countries. Without the right infrastructure, it is problematic to provide steadfast and inexpensive electricity for citizens. Governments could make investments to scale up the current power infrastructures i.e., expand grids, build power plants, improve transmission and distribution systems. In addition, expansion of energy access to alternative energy, or renewable energy sources such as wind energy, solar energy, geothermal energy, tidal power, biomass, and hydroelectric power. The development or expansion of these infrastructures will give more South Africans access to electricity.
Geographical challenges: Electrical power supply can be particularly difficult in isolated and rural locations and as a result, innovative solutions such as microgrids are needed.
Sustainability: Investing in environmentally friendly energy sources that are more sustainable than conventional fossil fuels, such as hydro, solar or wind power and subsequently lower greenhouse gas emissions, thereby lessening the effects of climate change and our dependence on fossil fuels.
Political will: Governments and other Stakeholders must have a sturdy political will to ensure that everyone has access to electricity. This entails pledging to increase the use of renewable energy sources, advance energy efficiency, and fund infrastructure. Policies that will guide the deployment of a mix of stand-alone, mini-grid and grid-based solutions where applicable.
Education and Awareness: Education may be a barrier to extending electricity access if many citizens do not fully understand the significance of electricity. Thus, education and increased awareness via publicizing certain adverts, which are used to sensitize citizens on the importance and efficient use of electricity. As ruled by the South African High Court, prisoners should have access to functional power outlets under the rule that access to electricity for prisoners is not a necessity of life but a privilege. According to South African legislation, electricity companies must provide service to all applicants who can arrange payment within specified boundaries up to licence constraints. Except for unavoidable circumstances, providers are not permitted to turn off power unless consumers are insolvent or fail to adhere to supply agreements after being notified for 14 days. If the requirements for supply are satisfied, applicants have the presumed right to demand power, and service providers are not allowed to refuse supply for any reason other than non-payment. In general, an applicant’s financial state is usually considered.
Eradication of Corruption: Resolving corruption issues within state-owned utilities like Eskom by enhancing governance frameworks and boosting transparency surrounding decision-making processes relating to procurement contracts etc., to ensure that funds allocated for electrification programmes reach their intended beneficiaries instead of being syphoned off through corrupt means. A recent communication by the Mpho Makwana (Eskom chairperson) states that “Eskom is proactively dealing with fraud and corruption”.
Improving Energy Efficiency Measures: South Africa can lessen its reliance on coal-based energy by enacting several policies designed to reduce demand-side management.
Promoting Renewable Energy Sources: The Government could improve on the provision of reliable and clean energy that does not rely on fossil fuels by supporting the growth of hydroelectricity, wind, and solar. In addition, enable off-grid solutions such as stand-alone solar home systems (SHS), which have proven effective in providing basic lighting and charging services to rural areas where connecting to the traditional grid is impractical.
In conclusion, by adopting and establishing these policies and programmes, governments can ensure more equitable distribution and access to electricity among their citizens most especially low-income households or rural areas. This will consequently promote inclusive growth and development. The adherence and concerted efforts of the government, businesses, civil society, and other stakeholders to these actions will improve the access and supply of electricity from dependable energy sources to the citizens with renewable energy sources while guaranteeing equal distribution across various social groups. Indeed, access to electricity should be considered an independent human right.
Dr. Nneka Akwu is a postdoctoral researcher at the North-West University, South Africa. She writes in her personal capacity.