The Trade-Offs Between Pro-Poor and Cost-Reflective Tariffs in South Africa: A Regulatory Perspective
Abstract: This paper presents arguments for and against cost reflectivity and pro-poor tariff policy in South African electricity supply from a regulatory perspective. This debate has been ongoing for decades in developing countries; however, there is still no clear direction on how countries should approach these two important competing policy positions. There are those that argue that achieving cost-reflective tariffs will attract private sector investment into the electricity supply industry (ESI) that will lead to much needed competition and reduced electricity tariffs. However, there are also those who argue that cost-reflective tariffs will make it difficult to achieve government social objectives of universal access through pro-poor tariffs, as cost-reflective tariffs will be unaffordable to the majority of the population. The fundamental question is what should come first, between cost-reflective tariffs and pro-poor tariffs in a developing country context, specifically in South Africa. This paper therefore attempts to examine the real trade-offs between pro-poor tariff policies and cost-reflective tariffs. The study attempts to answer one critical question: How can the electricity sector attract local and foreign investors, without necessarily affecting government social objectives such as universal access to electricity? The study finds that electricity consumers, and in particular poor households, have historically benefited from relatively cheap electricity and that tariffs have not been cost reflective. In other words, there is a mismatch between tariffs and the underlying costs of supplying electricity in South Africa. It also finds competing expectations between poor consumers and utilities. Consumers expect to receive electricity at an affordable price, while utilities argue that a good, reliable electricity supply’s tariffs must be matched with costs. Lastly, the study finds that it is difficult to achieve cost reflective tariffs in the short run, in an environment characterised by a high number of consumers dependent on government social grants and cross-subsidies. The study therefore recommends a gradual movement towards cost-reflective tariffs, together with the introduction of competition and energy efficiency and demand side management (EEDSM), in order to minimise the impact on the poor.
Keywords: Tariffs, pro-poor, cost reflectivity, electricity, consumers
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