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Green Becomes Developers' Color of Choice - Online.wsj.com
JOHANNESBURG—Facing skyrocketing energy costs and the introduction of one of the world's first carbon taxes, South African real-estate developers are ramping up efforts to develop energy-efficient buildings—from modern office towers to housing for the poor.

For several years, South Africa has been a leader on the continent in the development of so-called "green" buildings that use cutting-edge materials, technology and construction techniques, to minimize energy use. So far, though, most of the major projects have involved showcase office buildings for large corporations like Nestlé South Africa and Procter & Gamble Co.

Now, a broader range of developers are going green. Growthpoint Properties, which owns and manages more than 412 office buildings, shopping centers and other commercial properties in South Africa, has made efficient energy use core to its investment strategy, says Justin Mitchell, who has the title of sustainability coordinator at Growthpoint. "To be honest, it all comes down to the energy crisis we are in," he says.

In November, when Durban hosted the United Nations Climate Change Conference, the nonprofit Green Building Council showcased a project that upgraded 30 township homes—occupied by families with incomes that averaged about $354 a month. The buildings added such features as solar water heaters, insulated ceilings, energy efficient lighting and rainwater harvesting systems.

"Green buildings can be about large headquarters of governments and companies, but it also can be about the Main Street of a township," says Roger Platt, senior vice president of the U.S. Green Building Council, a sister organization to the group in South Africa.

South Africa's green-building push reflects the country's position as the continent's largest economy—and responsible for nearly 40% of its total carbon dioxide emissions. With the country heavily reliant on coal, the price of electricity has increased about 25% a year since 2008, according to the government's Department of Trade and Industry.

South Africa also has been stepping out on the global stage as a strong advocate of efforts to battle climate change. Looking to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 42% by 2025, the National Treasury proposed a carbon tax earlier this year, to take effect in 2013, that initially would charge businesses $16 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.

Real-estate industry executives have been considering the plans cautiously. According to a report this year by Broll Property Group, an affiliate of CBRE Group Inc., the tax would have a "huge effect" on the property sector, which would be responsible for "around 23%" of the total tax.

"Property is unlikely to be overlooked in this process, and on an initial basis it is likely to affect the cost line of all participants in the property sector, from developers, to tenants and landlords," says Mabuse Moja, a research analyst for Investec, a specialist bank and asset-management firm based in South Africa.

But some developers also are seeing the benefits of saving energy. Green technology typically cuts electricity consumption by about 40% and water consumption by about 15%, according to Germando Cardoso, development director at Tiber Bonvec, a large South African construction firm.

Tiber Bonvec recently spent about $5 million retrofitting a former auto showroom to develop premier green-office space in Sandton, Johannesburg's main business district. The office space, which was completed in February, includes recycled water and motion sensors that cut electricity use.

"The carbon tax is something we're working toward," Mr. Cardoso says. "Green building is becoming more the norm. There is a lot more awareness now that there was two or three years ago."

Green developments are becoming easier to finance and market to tenants. South African banks are getting more comfortable providing short-term loans that can be repaid by utility rebates, according to a 2010 report on Southern Africa by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Also, upgrades to lighting and more-efficient heat and air conditioning systems pay back their costs within three years, according to the report.

Growthpoint has offered tenants in 75 apartment buildings free energy-efficient lights, which cut energy use by 10%, and upgrades to air conditioning that cut consumption by 40%. "It will give us a competitive edge when the market starts moving and improves tenant retention," Mr. Mitchell says.

Government assistance also is available. In May, the National Treasury announced an 800 million rand Green Fund that will provide early financing for green economy projects over the next two financial years. Officials believe the development of green technology also will create jobs in South African companies that will be able to export their know-how to other emerging markets.

"South Africa can really lead the way in that space, and it's of huge interest to the international community," says Jane Henley, chief executive of the World Green Building Council.


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