Not just for the rich – solar use booms among low-income households in South Africa

 ·3 Apr 2024

With South Africa currently grappling with rolling blackouts, numerous municipalities are offering off-grid energy to impoverished households – with solar energy emerging as the dominant choice.

According to a new Stats SA release titled “Solar energy for the poor,” municipalities have provided alternative sources of energy to a total of 193,290 low-income households that are not connected to the grid.

This includes:

  • Solar – 149,919 (77.6%);
  • Bio-ethanol gel (fire gel) – 9,702 (5%);
  • Paraffin – 22,421 (11.6%);
  • Other – 11,248 (5.8%).

The data shows that “municipalities have increased their supply of solar systems to assist poorer households (over time), while fire gel and paraffin have become less prominent,” said Stats SA.

However, some households are still receiving unviable and potentially hazardous energy and light sources from municipalities, like candles. According to the 2022 census, around 3.2% of South African households still rely on candles as their energy source for lighting and cooking.

South Africa’s Free Basic Alternative Energy policy instructs municipalities to provide free basic services to indigent households, such as “free basic alternative energy”: any other form of basic energy, including solar home systems.

“The policy was introduced to aid predominantly rural municipalities that struggled to provide Free Basic Electricity to a relatively high number of indigent households in un-electrified areas,” said Stats SA.

The report tracks the municipal rollout of alternative energy sources up until 2022, and as such, the current reality is likely to be different as 2023 (the worst year on record for load shedding), which saw a boom in the demand (and promises from government) for alternative forms of energy.


Out of South Africa’s 257 municipalities, 21 municipalities across 7 provinces supply solar home systems to 149,919 low-income households.

This is 36,722 more households than the 113,197 recorded in 2017. This averages roughly 7,3244 new household installations each year.

The Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality in Gauteng provided solar home systems to the largest number of households in 2022 (82,177), followed by Alfred Nzo District Municipality in Eastern Cape (12,000) and Sol Plaatje Local Municipality in Northern Cape (7,837).

“Of particular interest is the concentration of municipalities in the northern parts of Eastern Cape, where two administrative levels provide the service across the same area,” said StatsSA.

“Alfred Nzo District Municipality, as well as its four local municipalities, are all actively involved in rolling out solar home systems,” the only districts to do so, it added.

Graphic: StatsSA

Fire gel

Bioethanol gel contains ethyl alcohol, and is a relatively clean-burning carbon-neutral power source. Although it does not burn for extended periods of time

In 2022, 7 municipalities supplied fire gel to 9,702 households in KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape.

This is 9,905 households lower than the 19,607 in 2017.

Graphic: StatsSA


“The use of paraffin by South African households in general has declined over the years,” said StatsSA.

In 2022, 11 municipalities supplied paraffin to 22,421 households in the Eastern and Northern Cape. This is 64,101 less than the 86,522 recorded in 2017.

According to census data, in 1996, 21,6% of all households used paraffin as a source of energy for cooking, falling to 8,5% in 2011 and further to 2,7% in 2022. As a result, municipal support programmes have scaled back in this regard.

Graphic: StatsSA


Six municipalities provided other alternative sources of energy to off-grid households.

These alternatives include coal, liquefied petroleum gas and candles.

11,248 households were identified in this category – 10,910 in 5 Eastern Cape municipalities and 338 in 1 Northern Cape municipality.

Read: New electricity laws for South Africa passed by parliament

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