Green technologies and environment programmes: role of DST

Science and Technology

25 October 2017
Chairperson: Mr N Koornhof (ANC) (Acting)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee was briefed by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) on its contribution to the transition to a greener economy. The presentation and all the questions from Members, coupled with the answers, demonstrated how many factors played a role in moving South Africa towards a green economy. The “Energy Grand Challenge,” which was the Department’s move to a greener economy, had three levels -- access, environment and security. This including reducing the carbon footprint, providing universal access to safe and affordable energy, and reducing the country’s dependence on imported oil.

Members asked for information about waste from farmers; how the move to a low carbon future could be incentivised; if any consideration had been given to research and development into road construction, using waste material; what the situation was at the Umzimvubu catchment area; if the DST was working with the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA); how many employees and products the DST had; who the DST was working with, and with whom it was sharing its research products; the readiness of the country to roll out the infrastructure for electric vehicles; which country in the DST’s judgment was the leader in the world regarding the green economy; hydrogen fuel cell technologies as an addition to South Africa’s energy mix; and why the education system had not been changed to benefit from the competitive advantage South Africa had in the area of natural resources. 

Meeting report

The Acting Chairperson said that the Chairperson was in Nigeria on a Commonwealth Parliamentary visit, and he had been asked to deputise. Mr C Mathale (ANC) had left the Committee and had been redeployed as the Chairperson of the Public Service Commission (PSC).

Mr Thomas Aufder Heyde, Deputy Director-General (DDG): Department of Science and Technology (DST), extended the apologies of Mr Phil Mjwara, the Director-General (DG), and Mr Imran Patel. the DDG.

DST on its contribution to the transition to a Greener Economy

Mr Henry Roman, Director: Environmental Services and Technology, DST, said that the key drivers of the “Energy Grand Challenge” that the DST had undertaken were:

  • To provide universal access to safe and affordable energy;
  • To reduce the carbon footprint;
  • Invest in low carbon technologies;
  • Reduce dependence on imported oil; and
  • To increase the percentage of alternative energy sources in the energy mix.

Hydrogen South Africa’s (HySA’s) strategic goals were:

  • To develop local cost-competitive hydrogen generation solutions based on renewable resources;
  • Wealth creation through value-added manufacturing of Platinum Group Metal (PGM) catalysis, with the goal of supplying 25% of PGM catalyst demand by 2020;
  • To promote equity and inclusion in the economic benefits of South Africa’s resources: and
  • Strong focus on human capital development (HCD) in line with the DST’s broader HCD strategy.

The four key aspects of the global change grand challenge were, understanding a changing planet; reducing the human footprint; adapting the way we live; and innovation for sustainability

The waste research, development and innovation (RDI) roadmap had four clusters: strategic planning, modelling and analytics; technology solutions, waste logistics performance; waste and environment; and waste and society. The intention was to drive a secondary resources economy (circular economy) to unlock approximately R17 billion per annum to the gross domestic product (GDP) of South Africa.      

Mr Roman said South Africa was gearing towards a low carbon future. This required innovation which in turn required a strong science base, and an enabling environment for small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) to flourish. High level skills would unlock innovations and technologies that would allow South Africa to leap-frog and catch up with the developed world. To innovate for an uncertain future would require a systems approach to developing innovation policy. This required complex adaptive management, utilising aspects of socio-ecological systems thinking.


Dr A Lotriet (DA) asked for more information about waste from farmers, and what was being done about this.

Mr Roman replied that it was quite complex, because part of the problem was that there were inefficient agricultural practices at play. Consumers were, of course, part of the problem, creating a secondary market for certain goods, and the other part was the transport. When goods arrived, they were often damaged because of the route travelled. Better roads were needed as part of the infrastructure. It was therefore a combination of issues that had to be addressed at the same time. At the retailer level, there was the issue of ‘best before dates’, consumer awareness and retailer awareness, throughout the value chain.

Mr N Paulsen (EFF) said that it was important to be geared towards a low carbon future. He asked how this could be incentivised, and what could be done about people who ignored the legislation that had been put in place to preserve that environment.

Mr Auf der Heyde said that the Department was not strongly involved in regulatory aspects, but movement within society was usually promoted by both positive and negative incentives, so the right combination of positive incentives was economical. Private energy producer incentives to feed into the grid were a very positive incentive in this regard. An example of a positive incentive was movement towards a low carbon future. This was a generic response to the question; he supposed that a mix of these positive incentives and disincentives would depend on the sector being referred to and the characteristics of a particular sector. What the Department tried to do was to ensure that there was capacity in both the public and private sector to support movement towards a low carbon future through appropriate science and technology activities so that there was capacity to do this. The Department supported this by encouraging the establishment of private public partnerships that operated in this space.

Mr Roman said currently there was vigorous debate in the climate change sector on the carbon tax in South Africa. Carbon tax was being put forward by the National Treasury, while the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) was putting forward carbon budgets that would come into effect in January 2018. This meant the big emitters were going to be hit hard and could offset by this by partnering with people who were mitigating their carbon emissions. This applied to carbon budgets and the carbon tax.

Ms C King (DA) said that bio-refineries with farmers and workers had been spoken about. She asked if any consideration had been given to negotiation or having consultations with municipalities, and whether there was not an overlap with the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP). The EPWP should be involved in this because it would be great for skills development.

Dr Herbert Basetse, Deputy Director: Health Technology, DST said that they were in consultation with farmers and municipalities. One of the programmes that the DST had done had emanated from the study, because rural bio-refineries were key to the improvement of the lot of people in the rural areas, and also for sustaining the bio-refineries. This was because they were important for greening the economy, as they used vegetation and at the same time replaced the fossil-based resources which were actually releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. The bio-refineries project would actually mitigate the problem of waste from farmers, because the value chain for bio-refineries started with the farmer. Waste could be properly channelled into bio-refineries as bio mass, and waste became a useful commodity when channelled into bio mass. Rural bio-refineries brought two things: opportunities – preparing the bio mass; and jobs, which would improve the economic lot of communities through transporting the bio mass over long distances.

Mr Roman said that some of the catchment work would involve the EPWP because there was some alien vegetation clearing that took place, and the Working for Water (WfW) programme normally used the EPWP for that purpose.

Ms King asked if any consideration had been given to research and development into road construction, using waste material.

Mr Roman replied that construction and demolition waste was being looked at by the municipal waste centre. It was quite a large part of it; one part was known as illegal dumping. The City of Cape Town was a prime example, where they spent billions of rands per year cleaning up illegal dumping. The Western Cape Department of Environmental Affairs was actually looking into the issue of whether one could use the aggregates that came out of the demolition of waste for the construction of roads. There were a few environmental factors that had to be assessed before one could utilise it.

Ms King asked about the Umzimvubu catchment partnership programme, because there was a huge controversy about this in the Eastern Cape, and there had been quite a delay in that project. She asked exactly how the DST had become involved with this. Had it been at the design stage, because at this moment that project was going nowhere? There was a rumour that another country, China, was going to be brought in. This meant cutting out most of this country’s local content.

Mr Roman replied on the delay in the Umzimvubu catchment programme, and said the Department purposely had not got involved with the dam and had distanced itself from the dam building area. The Department had been involved in only the land part of it. When it came to ecosystem rehabilitation, the DST could play a role.

Ms N Ndongeni (ANC) asked if the DST was working with the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), or if it was working alone.

Mr Roman said that the DST did work with the TIA. They were working together on an e-waste strategy at the moment. They were working together through the Water Research Commission on water technologies and how to bring them to market. As it did not have the capacity to implement, the DST tried not to work alone and tried to partner with the line department firstly, and then with industry and its own entities, like the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the TIA.

Dr Rebecca Maserumule, Chief Director: Hydrogen and Energy, said the DST funded research but did not have any right to intellectual property that was created, so in some instances it partnered with the TIA because it could hold rights to intellectual property. It was important that the TIA got support so that they could play that critical role for the state. The DST worked with end users like the South African Post Office. This was a needs-based association. The DST was also working with Eskom, trying to improve their greenhouse gas emissions.

Ms Ndongeni asked how many employees the DST had.

Mr Auf der Heyde said that the DST had between 470 and 480 posts. He asked if she meant how many people were involved in that area of activity. This was confirmed, so he said that leaving out secretaries, there were about 12 people sitting in these sub-programmes.

Ms Ndongeni asked how many products the DST had.

Dr Maserumula said that on an annual basis, in terms of energy units, the DST funded products for on average about R150 million. It had on average one or two products that entered the market.

Ms A Mfulo (ANC) asked about the mobility of energy and solar power.

Dr Maserumula said this was where storage came into play. There were facilities like batteries that allowed for energy to be used at different times of the day. Storage through batteries, as well as hydro fuel cells, meant that no matter where one was in the country, energy could be stored. Organisations across the country were actually doing the research with the CSIR so that locally one could understand how renewable energy could be used.

Ms Mfulo asked who the DST was working with, and with whom it was sharing its research products.

Mr Auf der Heyde said that the Department operated across vertical levels of government as well, and it had projects in all provinces. It had in the past demonstrated a spread of activities across all provinces and departments. The partnerships were not just regional, but were across vertical levels as well with municipalities. This information could be provided to the Committee at a future meeting if so desired. The Department was also working with the rural communities in the Eastern Cape.

Dr Maserumula said that the Department did work across all provinces, but its focus was on the rural communities from townships and informal settlements. In most cases, it looked at the deployment of clean energy. The rural areas had most of the deficits in that regard. The Department was working in the North West at a rural school which was running out of electricity for two months every year.

The Chairperson referred to the section of the presentation which dealt with the electric vehicle road map. He asked if there were any cities in South Africa that were ready to roll it the infrastructure, and which city would be the first to roll it out.

Dr Maserumula said the DST’s role was to ensure that the skills needed for the sector to take off where available, and also to ensure that the information was created to inform the roll out. It could not be predicted which city would be ready to roll out first, as it would be based on local government’s desire to make the change. The programme at Nelson Mandela Bay University was critical to this move. Many companies were looking at phasing out internal combustion engine machines. She asked how South Africa was going to change so that it could meet the needs of the new market in 2030 so that it was not locked into the technologies of the past. Nelson Mandela Bay University would play a critical role in ensuring that South Africa met the needs of the new market.

The Chairperson asked what was holding up the building of a business case for beneficiating the minerals.

Dr Maserumula said that having 80% of manganese ore in the country just meant that it was a comparative advantage. Having a competitive advantage meant that one needed to have the best product on the market. From an R&D point of view, this country was moving towards that. In terms of being the preferred customer in terms of the rest of the world, South Africa had the technology, but the only way was to feed into the value chains of the Asian and the United States markets in terms of companies that actually provided in the world. Hence conversations had been started internationally, making sure that South Africa’s product would meet the needs of the world. It also had critical partnerships with the right players and partners.

The Chairperson asked about the bio economy and the green economy in general. Which country in the DST’s judgment was the leader in the world as far as the green economy was concerned?

Mr Roman said that in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, South Korea appeared to be quite a leader in this space. They had invested something like US $60 billion since 2008 into greening their economy, and they focused a lot on electronics and renewables.

Mr Paulsen said that with the various types of hydrogen fuel cell technologies available, would that be a good alternative to add to the South African energy mix, instead of a trillion rand nuclear deal?

Dr Maserumula said it was a critical part of energy security to have an energy mix and also to have part of the country’s fuel stock being local. This was the case in the country as far as coal and uranium were concerned.

Ms King said that it had been said the resource situation in South Africa was better on average than other countries. This meant that other countries would then be looking to South Africa for resources. She asked if this would not deplete South Africa’s resources considerably, given that this country was not very competitive in the market.

Dr Maserumula said that in terms of resources in South Africa, the commodity it could export was coal. It was preferable to produce a product that could be transported without having any negative effects on the product itself.

Ms King referred to the comment about this country’s competitive advantage, and asked why it had never considered changing the educational system.

Mr Auf der Heyde said that in the past, the DST had briefed this Committee with regard to education, both at a school level and at university level. It could demonstrate the impact of science and technology on improving educational outcomes and educational experiences, and the DST could demonstrate the richness of science and technology knowledge. It had shown the importance of communicating about science and technology to the community, and that had constituted the engagement in enrichment and other activities. The Members had participated in the National Science Week activities, and some had been to the Scifest which happened in Grahamstown every year.

Mr Auf der Heyde said that the presentation and all the questions from Members, coupled with the answers, demonstrated how many factors played a role in moving South Africa towards a green economy. With regard to climate change and greenhouse gases, it had not always been as clear as it was now that the phenomenon of climate change could be linked to greenhouse gases. There were a lot of different sources of greenhouse gases. Not one single source accounted for 80% of all greenhouse gases, so addressing these problems required intervening across a wide range of activities.

Unfortunately science could not reduce the problem to one factor. What science could do was to help the country better understand what all the factors involved were and how much they all contributed, so that with political decision makers and private industry, one could then begin to address what the key factors were that one could use to address the challenges in the short to medium term, and how best to do that. Science could help the country to understand the complexities better and therefore help design responses to the challenges.

The meeting was adjourned.

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