Renewable energy choices and water requirements in South Africa



Permanent link to this Item
Journal Title

Energy Research Centre

Link to Journal
Journal ISSN
Volume Title

University of Cape Town.


University of Cape Town

South Africa (SA) is an arid country, where water supply is often obtained from distant sources. There is also increasing pressure on the limited water resources due to economic and population growth, with a concomitant increase in the energy requirement for water production. This problem will be exacerbated by the onset of climate change. Recently, there have been concerns about negative impacts arising from the exploitation of energy resources. In particular, the burning of fossil fuels is significantly contributing to climate change through the emission of carbon dioxide (major greenhouse gas). In addition, fossil fuels are getting depleted, thereby decreasing energy security. Consequently, the international community has initiated various interventions, including the transformation of policy and regulatory instruments, to promote sustainable energy. In view of this, SA is making policy and regulatory shifts in line with the international developments. Renewable energy is being promoted as one way of achieving sustainable energy provision in the country. However, some issues require scrutiny in order to understand the water footprint of renewable energy production. Due to the large gap that exists between water supply and demand, trade-offs in water allocation amongst different users are critical. In this vein, the main objective of this study was to investigate renewable energy choices and water requirements in SA. Data was acquired through a combination of a desktop study and expert interviews. Water withdrawal and consumption levels at a given stage of energy production were investigated at international and national levels. Most of the data was collected from secondary sources (literature) and therefore the assessment boundaries are not fully comparable. Results show that there are limited data on all aspects of water usage in the production of energy, accounting in part for the significant variations in the values of water intensity reported in the global literature. It is vital to take into account all aspects of the energy life cycle to enable isolation of stages where substantial amounts of water are used. Conventional fuels (nuclear and fossil fuels) withdraw significant quantities of water over the life-cycle of energy production, especially for thermoelectric power plants operated with a wetcooling system. The quality of water is also adversely affected in some stages of energy production from these fuels. On the other hand, solar photovoltaic and wind energy exhibit the lowest demand for water, and could perhaps be considered the most viable renewable energy options in terms of water withdrawal and consumption.