Four energy experts tell us what needs to be done to end Eskom’s electricity crisis
As South Africans grumble their way through another week of crippling blackouts, questions are being asked anew about what needs to be done to end South Africa’s years-long electricity crisis. Experts and environmentalists in the energy sector share their ideas.
Thandile Chinyavanhu, Climate and Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace Africa, told Our Burning Planet that, “South Africa is in desperate need of energy that can be brought online quickly to stabilise our energy systems.
“Renewable energy and battery storage are the solutions to our current energy crisis; these projects can be online within the next 18 to 36 months, relative to fossil fuel projects that could take 15 years to be realised and still not be viable. We only need to look as far as Medupi and Kusile for evidence.
“Renewable energy is the cheapest option; a benefit to the South African public that is being pushed further into energy poverty in the face of rising energy costs,” she said.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “An effective roll-out of renewable energy could have prevented 2021 load shedding and saved billions — report”
Bertha Dlamini, founding president of African Women in Energy and Power, said merely switching to renewables was a simplistic solution to the complex set of interconnected problems South Africa faced. She offered a comprehensive set of solutions and four essential requirements to ensure the lights stayed on.
“There are four areas we cannot get away from. Number one is that planned maintenance has to happen as is planned. We need to get our maintenance programme working efficiently and routinely, and there has to be a very stringent governance structure that oversees our maintenance programme across our (generation) fleet and which is complied with at all times.
“Number two is, we have to ensure that we have the right skills running our power plants. There has to be a human resource strategy to deal with unplanned breakages of the system. It cannot be a crisis whenever there is a breakage. We must have reserves of competent skills that can address the system’s deficiency as it happens,” said Dlamini.
“Number three is that we need to secure the (energy) availability factor of the system that supplies baseload — baseload being the minimum threshold of electricity capacity the country requires to function optimally, and if we do not have the ability to forecast short-term, medium-term and long-term (targets) and to have the discipline to meet those targets, we are going to find ourselves where we are.”
“Number four — what we are experiencing is a consequence of prolonged policy uncertainty that delayed the integration of renewable sources to add capacity to the grid. So we cannot get away from this, we have to find a way to cope with planned load shedding until we’ve added sufficient capacity on the system, because we have ailing, old infrastructure and we don’t have sufficient human resource capacity to manage this very complex dynamic around the system,” said Dlamini.
“So when it comes to diversifying our sources of energy, we also cannot be blown by the winds of change and just assume that renewable energy is going to be our saviour.
“As a coal-dominated country, we will never get away from coal. It doesn’t matter what the West says, we’ve got abundant coal resources… we should not be exporting the best quality of our coal to the highest bidder, we should be retaining it in the country to retain our energy system and we will need coal-fired power stations for the next 10, 20 years.
“It is a myth if we think we are going to get rid of our fossil fuel power stations.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: “How historical use of poor-quality coal has affected Eskom’s efficiency and brought us load shedding”
Dlamini explained that “our development imperative as an economy requires that we have baseload supply which can only be achieved through coal-fired power stations and nuclear. Gas is a very volatile commodity in terms of trading, unless we have very stringent commercial models that can sustain a steady pricing of gas. We need energy economists that understand the modelling of the pricing of gas that can ensure stability of that price.
“What we are observing is a reflux — if I may call it that — we are in a crisis, the business community is upset, civilians are upset, our economy is not growing at the rate we require for optimal economic performance that ensures we’ve got the right levels of employment across youth and across the population. So we’re facing a very complex socioeconomic challenge and the energy crisis is compounding this challenge.
“And so you’re seeing a lot of debate around, ‘we need renewable energy, it’s going to save us’, and we are changing policy. We just need to cast our eyes to the rest of the world and we see how the just energy transition programme and the policies that were agreed upon at COP26 in November are now changing. France is changing, Germany is changing, the UK is changing — they are all resuscitating their fossil fuel energy sources… and most of these countries will be facing load shedding for this coming winter,” Dlamini noted.
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“So globally we are seeing a reconsideration of this switch from fossil fuel to renewable energy. People are starting to look at… an energy mix that is tailored to their domestic market for its needs, and South Africa needs to do the same.
“We need to look at the abundant resources we have. We need to look at our legacy value chains that we have. We can modernise them, we can decentralise, we can digitise, we can decarbonise… but it does not mean we must abandon them at the risk of the nation’s security of supply.”
Dlamini also explained that Eskom’s human resource and engineering challenges should not become a political matter.
“From Eskom’s perspective, it is true that we have capable black, white, Indian engineers. We have capable engineers that have experience with the system — some of them have 20, 30 years of experience with the system… so we must walk away from unnecessary racial battles around competency when it comes to managing our system.
“Let’s get over the black and white racial lines around who can successfully deliver optimal performance at Eskom, and bring into the utility capable engineers who understand maintenance, understand the legacy technology that is in our power plants, understand how they run and operate, and understand the original equipment manufacturers’ prescribed maintenance scheduling and modelling and can comply with the requisite versatility as the breakdowns happen.
“We must move away from making the performance of Eskom a political debate and look at it as an engineering challenge and put the right resources… the right engineering resources, the right energy economists and strategists to work with the teams at Eskom.”
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Monique le Roux, a senior researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research with expertise in energy systems, shared a more technical set of solutions with Our Burning Planet.
“Looking at the Energy Availability Factor (EAF) for generation plants, it is evident that the rate at which Eskom’s generation fleet is failing is at a steep increase.
“The EAF (the difference between the maximum availability and unavailability of all the Eskom generators) was close to 90% prior to 2007 and has seen a drastic decrease since, with the EAF falling below 60% in 2022.
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“Eskom urgently needs additional generation capacity to be added to the national grid, as it is expected that the current generation fleet will continue with the downward trend in availability.”
Le Roux continued that “additional generation capacity added via the measures that were announced by the president in July include an additional 6,800MW from renewable energy generation and 3,000MW of gas, as well as a possible 6,000MW through private sector projects. “Although the addition of planned generation will go a long way in alleviating the current supply crisis, questions are being raised about the timeline within which it can become grid-connected due to serious capacity constraints on the national grid.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Here it is: Ramaphosa’s ‘energy action plan’ to end SA’s rolling blackouts”
Adding additional capacity was not without its own challenges, however. She said “the Transmission Generation Connection Capacity Assessment Report recently released by Eskom shows that no additional generation can be connected in the Northern Cape, while only a combined additional 2,800MW of generation can be connected in the Western and Eastern Cape.
“These are the provinces with the best and most optimal renewable energy resource, and grid capacity is very close to being exhausted in these areas. New capacity can only be made available through infrastructure build projects that have a 10+ year timeline.”
Makoma Lekalakala, Director of Earthlife Africa and joint recipient of the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize for the African region for her work on using the courts to stop a Russia-South Africa nuclear deal in 2017, shared her thoughts.
“This is manipulation of the highest form for South Africans to agree to fossil fuel generation. The more… load shedding, the more people are affected by load shedding, the more people will say ‘okay, we accept Karpowership… yes, we accept your nuclear’ — and we know that those are quite dangerous; they are not climate-friendly, and also they’ve got much bigger costs involved and are riddled with corruption.
“The issue of load shedding didn’t start yesterday… Eskom could have long ago invested in renewable energy — we’ve got abundant sun, we’ve got abundant wind,” said Lekalakala.
“There have been continuous positions that have been taken that are not helpful for energy security in the country.” OBP/DM