Renewable energy (part I): The power of H2O

by Marianne Mokken | January 19, 2022

Have you read Deon Meyer’s book Fever1?

Spoiler alert! The book, first published in 2017, tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world where lockdowns and vaccines could not prevent 95% of the world’s population being wiped out by a coronavirus and man’s struggle for survival as infrastructure collapses. Shops are looted, Koeberg reportedly explodes, and domesticated dogs become wild pack animals again. More about Koeberg and Mr. Meyer’s Nostradamus like capabilities on another day. The sole source of electricity for a group of survivors become hydroelectricity generated at Vanderkloof Dam. This made me think about the various possible sources of renewable energy in South Africa and the feasibility thereof. And of course, what the current legal framework is.

The White Paper on the Renewable Energy Policy of the Republic of South Africa identifies various forms of renewable energy in South Africa: solar, biomass, hydro power, biogas, and wind energy.

Let’s first focus on Vanderkloof Dam and hydroelectricity. Vanderkloof Dam is one of seven hydroelectric power stations in South Africa owned by Eskom. See the map below for the location of the various hydroelectric power stations in South Africa2:

City of Cape Town also owns one, the Steenbras Dam, which not only provides water to the city, but pumped storage hydroelectricity generated at this dam is used to supplement Cape Town’s electricity supply during peak periods and loadshedding. For example, this means that when the rest of the country is experiencing stage 3 loadshedding, the City of Cape Town can protect its customers from one stage of loadshedding by implementing only stage 2 loadshedding.

What is hydroelectricity?

According to Renewable Energy World3 flowing water creates energy and this energy can then be collected and turned into electricity. A hydroelectric power station can use a dam to store water from a river or canal. If this water is released, it flows through a turbine, causing it to spin and activate a generator to produce electricity:

As mentioned earlier, the Steenbras dam is a pumped storage station. Power from another power grid is used to spin turbines backwards. This causes water to be pumped from a lower dam to an upper dam. Water is released from the upper dam back into the lower dam, causing the turbines to spin forward and generate electricity4.

It is reported that the Steenbras hydropower station is capable of producing up to 180 megawatts (MW)5. In comparison, the largest hydroelectric dam in the world in terms of electricity production is the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei, China generating 22500 MW of energy6. South Africa is able to produce a total of around 3479 MW of hydro power7 whereas our neighbor Lesotho produces 72 MW from phase I of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project.8

Environmental impact

The use of hydroelectricity has definite advantages, to name a few:

  1. It is a renewable energy source9;
  2. Hydroelectric dams have a useful life of more than 100 years10;
  3. It is a reliable source of power11;
  4. The technology is not complicated12;
  5. The generation of electricity does not emit carbon dioxide13.

On the other hand, other than the high up-front costs14, the potential of drought15, and the risk of the dam being destroyed due to a natural disaster16, constructing a dam can impact the environment negatively. So, for example, can the building of a dam flood large areas of land, not only displacing residents and disrupting farming operations, but also affecting wildlife habitats17: The more stagnant water in the dam can cause excess algae, evaporation is higher, sections downstream can dry up and the dam water can be colder and less oxygenated18. Several measures are however available to counter these effects.

It is also estimated that, due to decomposing plants that are now covered by water, more than 0.5 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour is emitted.19For coal-fired power stations the estimated CO2 emissions are 1.4 to 3.6 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour20.

Legislation in South Africa

Due to the high cost of construction, not many municipalities and power suppliers will be able to afford developing a hydroelectric power plant. All hydroelectric power plants are however required to be authorized by the Department of Water and Sanitation in terms of the National Water Act no. 36 of 1998 (“the Act”)21.

The National Government is the trustee of the country’s water resources and therefore regulates the use, flow, and control of all water22. In terms of Section 21 of the Act water use includes, amongst others, taking water from a water source, storing water, or impeding or diverting the flow of water in a watercourse. This will include water use by any hydroelectric dam.

Water may only be used without authorization in certain specific circumstances (such as for household purposes)23. In all other instances water use must be authorized in one of the following ways:

  1. General authorization,
  2. Existing lawful use, and
  3. Licensed water use24.

So, for example, municipalities and other entities are authorized by a general authorisation to develop small-scale hydropower plants with a maximum capacity of between 10KW and 300KW. Several small-scale hydropower plants exist across South Africa. One example is the Friedenheim hydro plant in Nelspruit that generates about 2MW which is mostly sold to the Mbombela Local Municipality, reportedly at a lower cost than electricity supplied by Eskom26.

Integrated resource plan (IRP)27

The IRP sets out how the Government intends to develop infrastructure to meet the country’s electricity demands by taking into account cost, security of supply and the environment.

In respect of hydroelectricity, a treaty was signed with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the development of the Grand Inga Hydropower Project whereby an estimated 2500 MW of power will be imported into South Africa from the DRC.

Some writers are of the opinion that there is potential to develop small-scale hydropower plants, especially in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal as well as the possibility to reintroduce small-scale hydropower plants (such as Belvedere and Kouga) that have fallen into disuse due to the introduction of coal generated electricity provided by Eskom28. Start-up cost and licensing requirements however remain a big obstacle.

In conclusion

South Africa is one of the most coal reliant countries in the world when it comes to generating electricity. As indicated earlier though, South Africa has various available options for renewable energy. The road to creating sustainable energy sources for South Africa will also require proactive, strategic, and innovative thinking by business leaders.

At wauko we believe in sustainability, both in the way we do business and by adding sustainable value to our clients through continuous innovation. As you can see from this article, we are also passionate about supporting businesses in the renewable energy and sustainability space with the management of their cash flow risks and strategic financial management.


  1. Meyer, Deon. Fever. NB Uitgewers 2017 (The publisher may vary depending on which part of the world you are reading this from)
  21. Various other legislation and regulations form part of the legal framework that govern water use.
  22. Section 3 of the Act.
  23. Full details are set out in Schedule 1 of the Act.
  24. Follow this link for a handy FAQ on the licensing process and timelines:
  25. Department of Water and Sanitation (South Africa) 2016 National Water Act, 1998 (Act no. 36 of 1998): General authorisation in terms of Section 39 of the National Water Act, 1998 (Act no 36 of 1998) for water uses as defined in Section 21(c) or Section 21(i) (Notice 509). Government Gazette, 40229:105, 26 August 2016
  28. Kotzè, P. (2011) ‘The Potential of Small Hydropower Plants in South Africa’ The Water Wheel December 2011, pp18-20


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