By Mark Akrofi
This article discusses the idea that transition spaces are useful for understanding and facilitating sustainable energy transitions in Africa’s cities. Gated estates, in particular, could be one such space for residential energy transitions through the supply of solar homes by private real estate developers with supportive incentives from governments.
Around two-thirds of global energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions occur in cities1. Thus, a transition to low-carbon energy systems in cities remains pivotal to achieving the global emission reduction targets by 2030. Energy use in buildings accounts for 17.5 per cent of energy-related GHG emissions, of which 10.9 per cent come from the residential sector2. Recent advances in renewable energy (RE) technologies imply that entire neighbourhoods and city districts can be built with net-zero energy capabilities through building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV). Consequently, terms such as net-zero neighbourhoods and positive-energy districts/neighbourhoods (PEDs) have emerged as key concepts denoting widespread BIPV in cities3. Realising these concepts requires an integrated approach to urban planning, where RE technologies, especially solar PV, are infused into the urban fabric4. Significant efforts towards this goal are already underway in many advanced countries.
For instance, through its European Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET Plan, Action 3.2), the European Union aims to build and replicate 100 PEDs across European cities by 2025. BIPV is a core element of this strategic plan. In Japan, a sustainable smart town (figure 1) that seeks to reduce CO2 emissions by 20 per cent and ensure more than 30 per cent renewable energy use has been built in Fujisawa city, with solar PVs installed on all housing units and facades. Watsatch Group (a real estate company) and Rocky Mountain Power (a utility) plan to build 600 flats powered by rooftop solar PV systems in a housing estate in Utah, USA5. Could such neighbourhoods be built in Africa’s cities to facilitate the transition to low-carbon energy systems? There are arguments that such transitions are best suited to developed countries where planned transitions may follow normative and linear pathways, while urban households in Africa may face limited choices in adopting cleaner energy technologies, due to urban planning constraints such as urban informality6. But is this necessarily the case? And what avenues exist for building net-zero neighbourhoods/districts in African cities?
The transition challenge for residential solar PV in Africa’s cities
Achieving widespread integration of roof-based solar PV requires sound urban planning/design and adherence to building standards for renewable energy and energy efficiency. Affordability and social acceptance of solar PV systems equally play a crucial role in neighbourhood/district-scale integration of solar PV systems. However, urban informality alongside technical and socio-economic barriers has made many scholars question the prospects for such neighbourhoods in African cities. In spite of rapid urbanisation, many urban areas are poorly planned, and compliance with planning standards and building regulations is seldom achieved. Without compliance, factors such as building density, size, height, layout and orientations, which affect solar energy potentials and the performance of solar energy systems in built-up areas, remain unchecked. This situation presents a significant challenge to solar energy integration in such areas.
Despite a continuous decline in the cost of solar PV systems, high-capacity residential roof-based PV systems are still largely unaffordable to many low-income urban dwellers in African cities. The prices of components such as inverters and batteries remain relatively high. Also, even though renewable energies are becoming increasingly competitive, the distributed-generation sector does not see much support in terms of government subsidies compared to their fossil counterparts. Strong political will and government support are indispensable to achieving widespread residential solar-PV integration in cities. As seen in the case of PEDs, the European Union made a deliberate policy commitment to significantly boost onsite-renewable energy generation and its use in cities, and it has committed enormous funds to this end. This commitment has propelled a lot of action research into solar PV integration in urban areas. Some European cities have developed several tools, such as solar cadastres, to aid individual homeowners in making more informed decisions regarding switching to roof-based solar PVs. Funding constraints may, however, limit such huge commitments in Africa’s cities.
Gated estates: an opportunity
Many of the above challenges could be overcome in gated estates, which have become common in African cities. An estimated 6,500 gated communities can be found in South Africa alone7. Gated estates are also common in cities of many other African countries, such as Ghana, Nigeria, and Egypt. They are residential areas or housing estates, usually enclosed, with strictly controlled entrances using fences, perimeter walls or guards. These estates are well planned, with strict adherence to planning and building standards, and they could serve as ideal avenues for net-zero neighbourhoods in three ways. First, since the estates are mainly developed by certified real estate companies (mostly private), there is high compliance with planning regulations and building standards. They are often planned and built on a neighbourhood/district scale, thus providing an opportunity for large-scale integration of residential solar PV systems.
Secondly, gated estates are often inhabited by high-income groups to whom the affordability of residential solar PV systems may not be a major problem. Previous research has shown a high level of interest in residential solar systems in such estates, where ownership of solar home systems is also regarded as a show of social status8. The erratic nature of power supply from the national grid in many cities has compelled many affluent city dwellers to rely on backup diesel plants/generators, which pose several environmental risks. Residential solar PV systems provide a better alternative to these backup generators. People’s level of educational attainment influences the adoption of residential solar PV systems. Homeowners in gated estates tend to have higher education, an attribute that favours the acceptance of residential PV systems.
Thirdly, the same housing type/design is typically found in each gated community (see figure 2), making it simpler and more cost-effective for solar PV design and architectural integration. The design could be done for only one building type and replicated throughout the neighbourhood, which will also reduce the cost of preparing building plans for both the real estate developers and homeowners. Such an approach also allows for taking the issue into account in the early design/planning stage. Important factors such as building density, shading, building heights, orientation, roof types, type of building materials, landscaping and other elements of urban form could affect solar energy potentials and the feasibility of BIPV in cities.
Gated estates as transition spaces
The above characteristics of gated estates make them ideal avenues, or what I refer to as transition spaces, for low-carbon energy development through residential solar PV systems in African cities. The question of space, which has often been neglected in the past, is now gaining more attention in the sustainability transitions literature. Bridge et al.9, for instance, describe the energy transition as “fundamentally a geographical process that involves reconfiguring current spatial patterns of economic and social activity”. Gated estates have become distinct enclaves within existing cities. Even though they must usually conform with the general plan of the urban area, management/governance of services within such estates is often private, with some having internal rules and regulations that apply only to the inhabitants10.
These estates have become new socio-technical enclaves within the city, which itself is a socio-technical system. A socio-technical system comprises both natural and man-made elements such as energy infrastructure, a network of actors and social groups, as well as institutions and rules that guide their activities11. Various socio-spatial configurations within the city influence the process of energy transition within cities. Truffer and Coenen12 describe this process succinctly in their argument that unearthing the theoretical underpinnings of sustainability transitions requires an understanding of “transition spaces”, which they defined as “a synthesis of locally embedded contexts of events, objects and actions coupled with the wider socio-political, institutional and cultural context” (p. 11). Relating this definition to solar PV integration in the built environment, it can be deduced that, even within the same city, the local context for successful integration could differ from one part of the city to another.
Several elements of urban form, such as building density, layouts, heights of buildings, socio-economic characteristics, etc., which may vary from one city district/neighbourhood to another, have significant influences on the feasibility, adoption, and performance of residential solar PV systems. Such factors are easily controlled and checked in gated estates, potentially transforming them into solar estates. However, unlike the examples of positive-energy districts and related projects which European governments heavily sponsor, African governments may face limited choices due to funding constraints. Hence, the approach to transforming gated estates into solar estates could be advanced through private real estate developers with support from governments.
Private real estate developers typically do the design, construction, sale and management of gated estates. The common practice is that these developers build residential housing units either on a neighbourhood or district scale and sell the housing units to prospective homebuyers. This sector is a burgeoning business in Africa, and it has attracted several foreign investors. Some developers even advertise backup diesel plants/generators as an inherent part of their properties in order to attract customers. Thus, instead of supplying just regular houses with or without backup generators, estate developers could start looking into developing solar homes by making residential solar PV systems an inherent part of their housing units. However, the profit-oriented nature of these companies implies that the supply of solar homes must be a profitable venture. Their profitability will be determined by their affordability and the willingness of homeowners to buy solar homes. Previous studies have shown that these are likely not major challenges, since gated estates are often inhabited by high-income homeowners with a high aptitude for residential PV systems8. Nonetheless, further research is needed to ascertain both the technical and economic viability of supplying solar homes in gated estates of Africa’s cities.
Governments can also facilitate the development of solar homes through incentives that will attract both real estate developers and homeowners. One such incentive is through the supply of net meters. Net metering enables homeowners to supply excess energy from their solar PV systems into the national grid, thereby cancelling out the electricity that the household consumes from the grid. Consequently, it reduces the homeowner’s spending on electricity bills. Another incentive is the provision of capital subsidies for residential solar PV systems. Ghana has a good example of such a scheme. In 2015, the government of Ghana, through its Ministry of Power, launched the national rooftop solar programme.
Under this programme, prospective beneficiaries must install the required balance of system (BoS) components of the solar home system and use only LED lamps. Once all the prerequisites have been met, a subsidy of around GHS1,900 is paid by the Energy Commission to a licensed solar company to install the rooftop solar PV system for the homeowner. Hence, the homeowner does not pay for the solar panels and the installation fees. Governments could consider such schemes for real estate developers to enable them to integrate residential solar systems into the properties/estates they develop. Such an approach could prove more convenient for prospective homeowners, since they won’t have to apply for the subsidy or hire private solar companies to do the installations for them.
To conclude, energy transition in Africa is still in its early stages, and significant opportunities exist to facilitate the transition process. This article considers whether the idea of transition spaces is useful, and whether gated estates, in particular, could be one such space for residential energy transitions in Africa’s cities.
About the Author
Mark Akrofi is a PhD candidate in Sustainability Science at the United Nations University, Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability in Japan. He holds a Master’s degree in Energy Policy and specialises in researching governance and policy aspects of sustainable energy transitions in Africa. References
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