WWF South Africa on Friday proposed that municipalities in South Africa use the country’s R27 billion backlog in electricity distribution maintenance as an opportunity to simultaneously modernise the grid and roll out smart metering.

"This is a stand-out opportunity for South Africa/’ said Richard Worthington, WWF SA’s climate change programme manager. "It would probably be a better return on investment. It would be worth spending extra money now rather than catching up later."

The environmental group’s proposal came with its release on Thursday of a global report, undertaken with Ecofys, showing that a target of achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 was ambitious, but technically feasible and cost-effective.

WWF’s definition of renewables excludes nuclear energy. Its report said nuclear power was both an expensive and unethical option because nuclear waste remained toxic for thousands of years.

The report called for "urgent investment" into smart grids, and placed strong emphasis on modernising global electricity networks over the coming decades, a task it predicted would be "one of the great feats of the 21st century".

"We are going to need massive investment to extend and modernise our electricity grids to cope with increased loads and different energy sources."

It estimated that existing grid infrastructure could currently support between 20 percent and 30 percent variable power, such as wind or solar photovoltaics, but estimated this could grow to 60 percent by 2050. The other 40 percent could come from constant renewable energy sources like hydropower, biomass, geothermal electricity and concentrating solar power with storage.

Worthington said the research directly took on the contention that either coal or nuclear was necessary for baseload power.

"It’s all very well and good for Eskom to say that from a business planning point of view… but we need a more open-minded approach when it comes to country planning up to 2030," he said. "They battle to manage the grid as it is."

The government is in the process of adding another scenario to its draft integrated resource plan 2010, which maps out the energy mix over the next two decades. Following several calls at public hearings, the Department of Energy agreed to model a nuclear-free energy mix scenario, and it is due out around mid-month.