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POWER CRISIS

Four energy experts tell us what needs to be done to end Eskom’s electricity crisis

Four energy experts tell us what needs to be done to end Eskom’s electricity crisis
Eskom’s Kusile coal-fired power station in Mpumalanga. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Europe races to prepare for energy crunch this winter

“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.” 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Return of the veterans — inside Eskom’s push to reverse skills and knowledge loss

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

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Laurence Erasmus says:

    Why is Bertha Dlamini not a director of Eskom?

    • Andrew Kelly says:

      Absolutely agree. Bertha speaks the most sense I’ve heard from anyone in the electrical energy sector in a long time. The rapidly increasing capacity of rooftop solar combined with lithium-ion battery storage is a mega-trend around the world, and obviously in SA we are probably becoming world leaders in the adoption of this technology (because load shedding gives us no choice!). But it will still be decades before we can do without base load power stations that produce steady electricity 24/7. Our existing base load generators are like old cars, where something else breaks every 2nd week (except for Medupi & Kusile, which are not so old, but they still break down every 2nd week because they are “Monday cars” in that they are prime examples of how NOT to do large infrastructure projects). We really do need to build some big new base load power stations PROPERLY, and (as Monique le Roux correctly points out) add new capacity to our strained and aging transmission grid as well. These projects DO take 10-30 years to complete, so we’d better start NOW. If we can somehow avoid the corruption, SA still knows how to do decent large infrastructure projects (think e.g. Gautrain, ACSA, the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project, and the 2010 world cup stadiums). I reckon we need at least a large new nuclear power station on the Cape coast, and a massive gas powered station in the north east supplied from Mozambique. But, can we get the MONEY to build these, that’s the question…

  • louis viljee says:

    Pretty shallow article. And who is Berthe Dlamini? She seems to merely be trotting out Mantashe’s corrupt agenda. Yes, we do need technical expertise and maintenance. And we need to ensure that the grid is capable and strengthened to accommodate increasing volumes of renewables. Renewables are by far the economic and future-directed option contrary to the corruption and vandalism of our future contained in the ‘baseload’, coal and nuclear arguments. If Bangladesh is able to build micro grids in very poor communities, this is an example to what we could achieve in ZA.

    • mike muller says:

      Louis, you really should read what Bertha Dlamini says more carefully because she seems to understand the issues better than you do.

      Certainly, by choosing BanglaDesh as an example of what can be done, you show that you are not very well-informed. BanglaDesh hardly demonstrates what can be done to address the challenges. They only have around 580MW of renewables installed (which will only generate around 180MW on an average basis because renewables are intermittent).

      South Africa has almost 7 000MW of renewables installed (although, again, will only produce around 1/3 of that)

      (i’d put the internet links in but the comments function doesn’t allow them….)

      • Johan Buys says:

        Mike : Louis referenced micro grids which you seem to confuse with renewables. I am going to take our factory 80% off-grid in terms of peak demand and 100% off-grid in terms of energy. I am not going to do that with coal or gas. I am doing that with what you like to describe as intermittent solar. It will also cost me less than 60% of what I am already paying today to my council before the next price increase. If loadshedding continues or the grid does not want the surplus energy I export, I will shrug, add a bit more solar and chop the cable completely. Cheap, Reliable, Clean solar plus storage is a solution at the scale of a 500 worker factory, no reason it cannot displace 50% of our energy needs within a decade

        • Bheki Mthethwa says:

          @Johan Buys, so you will be using 20%. during peak time and zero during normal time. Can you share the capital costs of such a system and the infrastructure required.

          • Johan Buys says:

            Bhekim:

            You need to work from a side. Our factory consumes about 600MWh. I have solar that produces near (360) that and will add but when we did this figure R3.2m. So now we have generation but mismatch of time. I also already have 400kVA generator for loadshed. Busy finalizing but for around R4.5m I could do the inverters plus transformer plus 500kWh battery bank. We are lucky that evening loads are minor so I will (1) cut my grid peak kVA 80% (2) self consume more because of storage (3) run gennie rather than use grid if battery gets low. My existing grid tariff is abusive which is why it makes sense but if tariff changes I can change to time of use arbitrage instead of kVA fee arbitrage. I hope this helps

          • Johan Buys says:

            bhekim : sorry edit – we will not be using 20% in peak times we will cap grid at 20% of peak loads at all times. We will enter morning and evening peak times with full batteries so if need be can be zero draw in peak periods. We have a screwed up tariff that means we pay one rate any time of day but a stupid tariff on peak draw any time

        • mike muller says:

          Johan

          Those Bengali microgrids are solar powered and they are competitive according to the programme because of the very high price charged privately (ZAR60+ per kWh!)

          More generally, the problem with solar is that, as soon as there is a lot of it installed, the value of the surplus produced during the four to six peak hours of a sunny day falls to zero. It only becomes valuable if you can store it or use it to replace expensive peaking alternatives (like ESKOM’s current diesel usage).

          So I hope you can find a storage solution for yourself that doesn’t cost the earth. Currently, the best estimates from the renewable promotors are that the storage to turn intermittent solar into dispatchable energy costs more than the solar panels themselves.

          But would be interested to see your numbers if they prove me wrong!

          • Johan Buys says:

            Mike: a mini grid would likely combine renewables and grid and diesel. Refer my other post for what I am doing. Unfortunately there is a pile of nonsense out there about costs. I would not do this if it did not make sense financially. Solar is dirt cheap – figure effective 74c/kWh at a modest scale…. Storage depends a lot on usage profile. Residential pure solar and battery is for people that got 30% for math. A daytime factory or business is very different proposition. Especially in light of our weak grid. About ⅔ of my loadshedding events will in future not involve a generator. I will also slash my connection fees by 80% and they are the large majority of my expense :/

    • andrew farrer says:

      Agree 100% Louis, can’t understand why DM entertains her BS? She uses Europe reverting to fossil to try show that renewable s don’t work, carefully forgetting to discuss the reason behind the crisis (russia’s war on Ukraine). And then want’s us not to make it political, ha ha ha – clearly gwede’s mouthpiece!

  • Johan Buys says:

    If this Bertha Dlamini is what we call an energy expert, it perfectly explains the energy crisis in South Africa. aha – more coal of course!! These geniuses spent 400% of budget building two modern coal power stations that are still not working. That 9.6G plan is delivering what – 5GW? Just Medupi and Kusile’s shortfall in coal generation is four stages of loadshedding. Eskom must not be allowed near any new capacity be it coal or renewable.

    • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

      It does not mean that the mess at Medupi and Kusile built on the back of corruption which is similar to the corrupt procurement of a can of 340ml of coke at R65 in government as we have seen in many scams. Hitachi was fined by the US for the corruption in South Africa yet we failed to prosecute them because if you prosecute Hitachi the reality is that you must prosecute the ANC as a beneficiary of crime like the companies involved in state capture. This corruption of overpricing by Hitachi and failure to prosecute by the NPA shows that it is captured. You have the Hitachi case that the FBI can help us to recover the money. The second issue is the corruption that has benefitted the ANC as Geoff Makhubo and Lucky Montana testified at the Zondo Commission. The issue of corruption around coal of getting trucks instead of rail to move coal was a ploy of enrichment including other middle persons in the procurement process of Eskom. The issue of fuel procurement by middle persons is not limited to Eskom but also is in the SANDF, SAA, PRASA, TRANSNET as a system of looting. These are the issues that must be addressed in the SOEs that push up costs including an incorrect BEE that can put a premium of 30% on goods supplied to the state and parastatals which really benefits a few elite and must be condemned. We need to get rid of these practises at ESkom and have criminals arrested and their political connections.

      • Johan Buys says:

        Cunningham: I believe it is overdue that all significant Eskom contracts (old and future) are posted to a public platform. There are enough skilled taxpayers that would have a look at a contract in a field that they have knowledge of, and shout out about the more obscene practices. Confidentiality goes out the window when you contract with taxpayers! Also, I would like to see companies act changed so that the FICA details (eventual beneficial owners) of all companies that deal with the state become public information, not just the directors as it is now. SARS would also like to have a look…

  • cindy says:

    Berthe Dlamini seems to have missed the major reason why Europe is switching back to coal and nuclear from their renewable power achievements – it’s due to the unnecessary and vicious war that Russia has started in Ukraine. This is the only reason that Europe has had to temporarily back track on their renewable energy in an effort to shore up power for the Winter.
    The issue in South Africa is notably complex and very different, but if the Government would expedite the planned increase in capacity and infrastructure development instead of incessantly talking and getting nothing done, then the country would have a bit of a chance. Even Ramaphosa flying home early and missing the UN meeting didn’t realize anything new, except a photo opportunity.

  • Pieter van Dam says:

    Maintenance: In the early 2000s Eskom targeted 90% availability, 7% planned maintenance and 3% unplanned maintenance. I remember a discussion I had on this with the late Bruce Crookes. The key was to do the planned maintenance (1) BETTER and (2) FASTER in order to increase plant reliability; not to do less maintenance. So totally agree that one key is that we need to get the planned maintenance done, but we need to do it properly and quicker. My understanding is that supply chain and thievery are the greatest delays to getting planned maintenance done properly and quickly, closely followed by lack of skills, poor planning and budget constraints. I also understand that units under planned maintenance are put back into service prematurely to solve emergencies. This cannot work and needs to be addressed.
    PS: Circa 1990 Percy Barnevik introduced a T50 program at ABB – i.e. to reduce process time by 50% (if memory serves me correctly). This should be considered for the planned maintenance process.

  • Pieter van Dam says:

    GRID CONGESTION: The future grid lies in distributed renewable generation, close to users with distributed storage. We are following the old paradigm of building mega renewable plants far from the users which assumes the purpose of the grid is to transport as opposed to balance. While the sources in the Northern Cape are superb the cost of the grid is not correctly reflected. We need sources nearer to loads, even if they are not as good, and which require less grid capacity. However given the current situation we can at least double the capacity at current locations in the NC, EC, etc if we introduce storage at source so the we can “force more energy through the same pipe”.

  • Pieter van Dam says:

    From my above comments the key is better planned maintenance with more renewables and storage. Coal and nuclear are not the solution. At best coal will take 8 years to build and nuclear will take 14. Coal can no longer be financed and as various studies (CSIR etc) have shown is probably no longer required.

  • Dragan KostaKostic says:

    Cancel Eskom’s odious debt to the World Bank

    SAFTU reiterates its demand that Eskom’s high-carbon debt – e.g. on Medupi and Kusile coal-fired power stations – must be declared as an Odious Debt because the greatest beneficiaries of it were capitalist corporations such as Hitachi and the cronies in the ANC through corruption successfully prosecuted even in the United States in 2015. The World Bank, bilateral lenders and commercial banks must cancel this debt.

  • Dragon Slayer says:

    Bertha Dlamini a voice of reason and now probably an ANC pariah. Key points of hers make real sense. Renewable can never be a dependable baseload power supply solution. Nuclear is also getting a bad rap from the fringe but, it is clean and with new technology seems not to need the mega-plants of the past. The logic for nuclear? The UK is planning to build ten new plants while committed to carbon neutrality. Go figure?
    As for the current situation – affirmative action, cadre deployment and corruption has shed skills with probably more qualified South African professional engineers working on the UAE Barakah nuclear plant than available to Eskom. Same problem for maintenance!
    PS. Eskom does not have to own the power station to get electricity from it, probably best not to!

  • Avi Ramgoolam says:

    It is not hard to fathom the root cause of the series of crises in our country. It is the impatience to replace the old order in critical state run institutions (the very functional bureaucracy that evolved over centuries), with a new order (which neither had the wherewithal to run the system, nor the opportunity to be systematically assimilated into the system). Whilst it has been argued that this was an initiative in rapidly righting the wrongs of apartheid, in reality it was a clear strategy by the new ruling party (synonymous with new government), to control this space through appointments of pliable cadres in critical roles. It was impatience borne out of the need to expedite “our turn to eat”. A particular contingent is certainly eating well, while the majority of the disadvantaged continue to suffer as they did under apartheid.

  • Lodewikus Hanekom says:

    Lekalakala comment ‘those are quite dangerous; they are not climate-friendly, and also they’ve got much bigger costs involved and are riddled with corruption’ The ignorance of a prize winning person with this comment on Nuclear is one of the dangers we face in listening to nonsense – Nuclear is the most climate efficient and cleanest energy – Corruption and danger is human incapability and cost to efficiency and long term efficiency is all in favour of nuclear!

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    The additional question that nobody seems to mention is, in the light of the lack of transmission infrastructure to connect the renewables up to the grid, why is nothing being done about it? Is the government then not serious about renewables at all? If it has a 10 year installation time, then it should already have started years ago. And the same with the other six Ingula-like hydro-electrical pump stations in the Drakensbergs, Lebombo mountains, Eastern Limpopo and Eastern Cape. Why has Eskom not started to make plans to build these? We are going to need all of it in due course and the longer we wait to start putting it in place, the longer our transition to a cleaner energy future will be delayed!

  • Barrie Lewis says:

    One thing is clear; this is an immense problem that is not going to go away. Smart South Africans are digging deep, making sacrifices in other areas, no holidays, few presents and putting up solar panels for Christmas. A wonderful gift to the family.
    Never go less than a 5kW, 48V system. You can add more panels and lithium batteries when you have more moola, but not lead cells.
    Sell the gennie, give up ironing clothes. It works, we’ve done it. The failures at Eskom do not affect us directly.

  • Susan Keegan says:

    Hear, hear, Ms Dlamini – she is 100% correct!

    • Sue van der Walt says:

      I am not qualified to comment on the electricity crises, but I would like to say that I am relieved that the discussion of our immense problem is being discussed at a serious and hopefully, informed level.

  • Sam Shu says:

    I love this – not!! We are quoting a series of “experts” who, by no means, have independent agendas (asp Ms Dlamini) with a bunch of solutions that the governing party is completely aware of and doesnt have the political will or competence to do. Unfortunately (this is not good for South Africa) i am with the guy who commented that he is taking his factory onto solar and off, of Eskom except for peak. When most commercial enterprises and wealthier individuals do this, Eskom’s revenue will take a larger nose dive. Electricity should be a social good, i.e., centrally managed and provided by govt but we are way beyond that now and just need to go independent, as individuals (rooftop solar) and micro grids and city based grids. Escalation of the wealth gap.

    • Johan Buys says:

      Sam : careful on those off grid plans. Our factory went big solar when our council had a great offering. They then changed the rules by way of a tariff design that targets solar. You will need a smart grid (combine grid plus solar plus storage plus battery storage) your side of the meter and a management system that means you can change your response faster than they can dream up new schemes.

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