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The game-changer for SA energy in the Budget Speech — and the fight we have on our hands

The game-changer for SA energy in the Budget Speech — and the fight we have on our hands
Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana delivers the 2023 National Budget Speech at the Cape Town City Hall on 22 February 2022 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

The Budget Speech delivered by Minister Enoch Godongwana heralds the end of Eskom as we know it. Although several other factors will also come into play, the stabilisation and transformation of the country’s energy framework will now depend on the successful roll-out of the National Transmission Company of South Africa, and the implementation of the much-awaited and urgent reforms to the Energy Regulation Act.

The national furore triggered by the Andre de Ruyter interview and our transition into a new era of higher-stage rolling blackouts have together drowned out the real news of the day — how the Budget Speech has changed the energy ballgame. The one glaring and hardly noticed implication of the Budget Speech is that it brings to an end Eskom as we’ve known it. Eskom’s future will no longer be about generating electricity, it will be about transmission — buying electricity from public and private entities that generate electricity, and selling it to a range of buyers including municipalities who on-sell to others, as well as thousands of businesses and households.

This, the Minister of Finance said, is part of South Africa’s Just Energy Transition strategy: “More broadly, part of addressing the persistent electricity supply shortage must involve implementing a just transition to a low carbon economy. Climate change poses considerable risks and constraints to sustainable economic growth in South Africa.

“We are also working to transform the electricity sector to achieve energy security in the long term.” This statement in the speech, supported by similar strong statements in the Budget Review, is significant and should not be ignored. If the DMRE read the speech, then the much-awaited reforms to the Energy Regulation Act (ERA) should in theory follow suit.  

After months of insisting that Eskom can be fixed in 12-18 months and that another bailout is conditional on this happening, none of this bravado was present in Minister Enoch Godongwana’s Budget Speech. No mention of the 75% Energy Availability Factor that the new Eskom Board was mandated to implement. All he referred to was the need to “improve availability of electricity”. Hard to imagine how much weaker this statement could have been.

In fact, when read together with the Budget Review, his message to Eskom is very clear, to paraphrase: “rather than taking over a portion of your debt as promised in the Medium Term Budget Statement last year, we have decided to inject R254-billion into your business that can only be used to pay down your debt over three years, during which you must change your business model”. To pay for this, the debt:GDP ratio will be increased to 73.6%. In short, we will all have to work harder to pay the bill.  

Sounds simple enough, but when read together with his announcements of incentives to accelerate the installation of rooftop solar and in anticipation of the forthcoming amendments to the ERA (if DMRE can get its act together), it unleashes a radical reform programme that will change the nature of South Africa’s energy sector forever.

The absence of any confident statements about the possibility of fixing Eskom’s 90 electricity-generating machines located within its 15 power stations suggests that the National Treasury has finally accepted the inevitable — there is little chance that the gradual decline of the Energy Availability Factor from a high of 90% in 2005 to below 50% in 2023 is going to be reversed anytime soon, if ever. In short, the likelihood of fixing the machines as the primary means for ending rolling blackouts is finally seen for what it is, a chimera.

The Budget Speech effectively declared that Government is no longer going to throw good money after bad. As a result, Eskom must sell off power stations that private companies will want to buy and turn around (especially those that are not too old yet), shut down those that need to be shut down in accordance with the 2019 Integrated Resource Plan, and fix what can be fixed within the financial means available (which is not much). Those who dream about restoring Eskom to its former glory as a generation powerhouse capable of ending rolling blackouts will discover that the Budget does not make provision for additional funding of a sufficient scale for this to happen in practice.

Andre de Ruyter may not have succeeded in ending rolling blackouts because he lacked the political support needed to bring the looting and sabotage of Eskom to an end, but he did succeed in setting up the National Transmission Company of South Africa (NTCSA) in line with the 2019 Eskom Roadmap. Although the Board of the NTCSA must still be appointed by the Minister of Public Enterprises so that it can get up and running as soon as possible, all the work has been done to re-allocate Eskom’s transmission assets to NTCSA, together with the related debt. The capital injection of R254-billion will obviate the need to over-burden the NTCSA with too much debt, thus freeing it up to raise the necessary capital to address the tremendous constraints on the grid. As it was put in the Budget Speech, this will enable Eskom “to invest in transmission and distribution infrastructure”. It is this stipulation that reflects most clearly National Treasury’s perspective on Eskom’s future business model. I’ll come back to this.   

In July 2022 the President announced a national strategy that seemed viable at the time. Taking up suggestions by the National Planning Commission, two of the initiatives that formed part of this announcement were the following: (a) that Bid Window 6 would be increased from 2.6 GW to 5.2 GW (later reduced by DMRE to 4.2 GW); and (b) that the cap on embedded generation would be scrapped entirely.

In simple terms this refers to the following: (a) that the DMRE’s next call for proposals (i.e. the sixth call since the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme [REI4P] began in 2010) for renewable energy projects delivered by Independent Power Producers (IPPs) would be doubled from 2.6 GW to 5.2 GW because of the urgent need for more power on the grid; and (b) that anyone can now build their own solar or wind generation plant to generate what they need and even sell to others, no matter the size (this is what is referred to as ‘embedded generation’).

Both types of projects, however, need to be connected to the grid. Eskom responded to requests to connect to the grid on a first-come-first-serve basis. Those developers and businesses with ‘embedded generation’ projects were quickest off the mark (because of fewer hoops to jump through) and were allocated the lion’s share of the spare grid capacity. By the time the Bid Window 6 bidders got around to applying for grid capacity, all that was left was sufficient for less than 1 GW of renewables. This is what Minister Mantashe announced at the end of 2022. In short, the twin moves of lifting of the cap on embedded generation and increasing Bid Window 6 to 4.2 GW contradicted each other because of the limitations of the grid. (This could have been anticipated because information about grid limitations has been in the public domain for some time now.)  

The grid has been the Cinderella of the energy system for many years. It has been neglected, and therefore there are large sections that need to be rehabilitated and major extensions are needed. Short-term measures will require investments of around R150-billion. Longer-term, to connect 5 GW per annum of renewables plus gas through to 2050 (which is what is needed), R750-billion will be required.


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There are short- and long-term opportunities. There are areas with cables, but insufficient sub-stations — this is where the quick wins lie to create new capacity in the short term. And then there are areas where no grid capacity exists, but where wind and solar resources are abundant, such as the Northern Cape. This is the challenge facing the still-to-be-properly launched NTCSA. At the moment, about 400 km of transmissions lines are constructed each year. During the heyday of South Africa’s last big build programme in the 1970s and 1980s, this build rate rose to 1200 km. To have sufficient grid capacity to connect 5 GW of new generation capacity per annum (which is what is required), the build rate will have to rise to around 2,000 km per annum. We have never achieved this before, and now we have a much more regulated environment compared to the 1970s and 1980s.

The Budget Speech and Budget Review are, therefore, completely correct in their judgement that the key to energy security in South Africa is no longer about managing the generation of electricity in a world where many private sector investors and developers are prepared to do this. Instead, the key lies in a publicly owned NTCSA that has a viable balance sheet and well-developed future planning capabilities to ensure that the supply of electricity matches the demand in the cheapest and most efficient manner. This means investing in and maintaining the grid, and buying and selling electricity at cost-reflective tariffs. Nersa, of course, will have to come to the party — but that might require a leadership that sees the future rather than the past.  

Read in Daily Maverick:25 years in the making – the real reasons we have rolling blackouts according to De Ruyter

There has been much huffing and puffing about the reference to an international team providing National Treasury with an analysis of what was referred to as ‘Eskom’s operations’. Yes, sure, there have been similar studies done by Eskom itself (that have not seen the light of day) and by DPE. But now that National Treasury has decided on strict conditionalities for a capital injection to pay down the debt, it needs an instrument for implementing this structural adjustment strategy that provides a coherent baseline for determining what can be sold, what can be shut down, and what can realistically be fixed in the short- to medium-term.

Will selling off viable power stations to the private sector resolve the corruption and sabotage? Take Tutuka power station as an example. It is gigantic – 3,500 MW. Its Energy Availability Factor is at 30% (compared to what it should be, i.e. 90%) and it is relatively young. A private sector buy-out (probably at a massive discount given that it is basically dysfunctional in financial and technical terms) would assume a turnaround at considerable cost followed by profits for the next 20 years. The advantage that a private owner would have is that unlike a public-sector owner like Eskom that is politically micro-managed, there is no political interference in business decisions regarding staff size, management competence, security controls and procurement. This, plus a set of steel-lined gut muscles and bullet-proof vests for every manager, might make it possible to turn Tutuka around and re-establish it as a respectable employer of the people of Standerton who will then be able to start paying their municipal fees again.

When it comes to the unleashing of rooftop solar, incentives were announced for residential households and businesses. The incentive for households was for panels only. This has triggered a backlash, but it does make sense. Many households have invested in batteries, battery chargers and inverters already. They place a large burden on the national grid because after the end of rolling blackouts the batteries get charged. It has been estimated that this adds a stage to rolling blackouts. Incentivising these households to buy panels to charge their batteries can ultimately reduce rolling blackouts by a stage. Is R15,000 sufficent? Probably not.  

Read in Daily Maverick:Eskom’s ability to provide power is steadily worsening, CSIR stats show

But it is the attractive incentive for businesses that could really make a difference. With no cap on size and a rebate of 125% of the cost, this will unleash an accelerated increase in rooftop solar installations that could make a massive difference. Vietnam did something similar in response to their energy supply crisis, and the result was the installation of 9 GW of new capacity in one year (2020)! We should not underestimate the potential of a ‘Vietnam solution’, including the unintended consequences for distribution systems and even an overshoot resulting in too much capacity.

At a recent meeting of the Presidential Climate Commission, I was asked whether it will be possible to end rolling blackouts in two years. The answer is yes, if the following materialises: if the Energy Availability Factor of Eskom’s power stations levels out at 60% (which now seems unlikely — but even 55% might do the trick); if say 6 GW of the 9 GW of embedded generation that is already in the pipeline happens quickly enough (which depends on approvals by regulators and financial institutions); if the rooftop solar revolution underway delivers at least 4 GW; if the REI4P projects deliver another 2.5 GW; if emergency gas generation is somehow brought online for a maximum of five years; if sufficient funds are available for the diesel generators; and if urgent action is taken to create more grid capacity by extending existing or building additional sub-stations where there is existing cable infrastructure. There are, of course, too many ‘ifs’ here, but this is the reality we face. Will 2023 be worse than 2022? All the evidence suggests that this will be the case. But 2024 could see an improvement if the renewable energy and gas projects come online.

eskom

(Source: https://theoutlier.co.za/loadshedding-tracker)

The Minister of Finance started his speech by referring to the energy crisis. Further, he boldly stated: “The lack of reliable electricity supply is the biggest economic constraint”. I am not sure many really understand the significance of this statement, especially those who insist that we cannot afford to transition to the cheapest source of energy available today when they earnestly insist that we need this mythical saviour called ‘baseload’. We have a baseload system now, and it is failing us.

When will we realise that South Africa has to catch up with the rest of the world by dropping this outdated concept that has no technical relevance anymore? What is relevant is the pattern and geographical distribution of demand, and how the energy system is configured to meet this demand via a vast multiplicity of electricity generators connected to a viable smart grid that can flexibly dispatch energy to where it is needed. This is what energy security looks like in the 21st century. And the driver is not attachments to technological solutions devoid of the financial costs, but rather the real cost over the life cycle and what we can afford. Why hang onto expensive technological notions like ‘baseload’ and commercially unproven ‘carbon capture and storage’ when there are proven cheaper more reliable solutions? Why? For what purpose? In whose interests?  

Read in Daily Maverick:How the ANC’s years-long delays on renewables plunged SA into darkness and scuppered plan to end blackouts

Finally, the Budget Speech needs to be commended for emphasising and defending the now much-maligned Just Energy Transition Partnership. One of the unfortunate consequences of the De Ruyter interview is the way he cast aspersions on the JETP. His comments will influence external donors, which can set us back. There is no evidence that the governance of the $8.5-billion funding package has been diluted. Yes, true, Eskom lost control of it, but that does not mean it is under threat. This much was clarified by Commissioner Joanne Yawitch at the recent publicly broadcast meeting of the Presidential Climate Commission.  

Recent revelations about the extent of corruption and sabotage at Eskom as a key driver of rolling blackouts confirm that we face some very dark and dangerous times ahead. But this should not overshadow the fact that the Budget Speech is a game changer when it comes to energy sector reform. Whether the National Treasury view of the future gets translated into practice is a completely different matter altogether. It will need all the help it can get, especially from the National Electricity Crisis Committee and key units in the Presidency such as Operation Vulindlela, the Presidential Climate Commission, the Presidential Economic Advisory Council and, most importantly, the National Planning Commission. There are some very powerful interests lined up to oppose any reforms that threaten organised looting, in particular the Just Energy Transition championed by the President and the Minister of Finance. A titanic battle for the soul of the nation is afoot. We all have a part to play in the good fight ahead. DM    

Professor Mark Swilling is Co-Director of the Centre for Sustainability Transitions at Stellenbosch University.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Nic Tsangarakis says:

    Excellent piece Mark. There just might be light (a pun, I know) at the end of the proverbial tunnel after all.

  • David Walwyn says:

    Excellent article and commentary! The importance of the Budget speech in terms of the re-direction of Eskom cannot be ignored. The major challenge to the implementation of your recovery/reconfiguration plan remains, however – the Minister of MRE and the DMRE. King Coal and his truckers will fight to the bitter end any privatisation of energy generation and transition to renewables.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Great article, thank you! – good to see that there is a plan in the pipeline, whether or not it can be achieved, remains to be seen!

  • Elizabeth Jansen van Vuuren says:

    Thank you Prof Swilling for this article which finally generates some glimmers and sparks of hope.
    While there are indeed many ifs… this is certainly information I would not have been able to bring together for myself, so thanks also Daily Maverick.

  • Karl Nepgen says:

    Excellent piece of writing Mark. Probably the most rational and to the point analysis and discussion of our energy state of disaster, in real life context. This showcases the value of non-political multi-discoplinary thinking. Many journalists can learn from this, to create reading value rather than sensation.

  • Helen Lachenicht says:

    Perhaps we should give them an incentive to speed this up. My feeling is we pay income tax to the government in order to facilitate running SA . As they currently are not able to supply electricity reliably perhaps we should withhold a portion of what we pay as we certainly incur extra expenses due to lack of electricity. Likewise our Metro and town councils are paid rates and taxes in return for services and management and are unable to control cable theft in addition to lack of electricity?

  • Mark B B says:

    My fear is that the frantic grid build-out – which thanks to the State of Disaster regulations no longer requires environmental authorisation – will be unnecessarily damaging. Nature has no foothold in the JETP unfortunately, and we may look back in 25 years and wonder why we let some much additional destruction occur heedlessly. Should we not de-risk the grid roll out (and the other generation projects which will follow and also dont require authorisation) by investing heavily in spatial planning to avoid the most egregious biodiversity impacts & proactively pursuing ecological compensation for those residual, unavoidable impacts that do occur? Wish that we had a Ministry of Environment that was this creative…

    • Zoe Lees Lees says:

      I absolutely agree. However, if the funding comes from DFIs and not the Chinese/Russians the ESIAs and a risk-based approach will be implemented, whether authorisations are required or not.

  • Jeremy Stephenson says:

    Thank you Prof Swilling for bringing such clarity to this extremely complex subject.

  • Alan Watkins says:

    The minister presented a plan. One year, two years , three from now it will still be that. Consider that about three (?) years now a plan was presented that Eskpm was to separate generation, transmission and distribution. The minister and even the CEO talk about having achieved progress (registered some companies but that takes about ten minutes) but has anyone seen REAL progress, CONCRETE changes to effect that?

  • William Kelly says:

    Superb stuff Prof, just one minor disagreement. De Ruyter did the best possible thing by highlighting the risk to the JETP. A donor with big open eyes, a high degree of skepticism and the ability to switch off the taps at the slighest provocation is exactly what is needed. Else there will be more of the same old same old and if you think what we have currently is expensive…. the “state of disaster” has been put up expressly to fund the ANC election in 2024, which will make the Covid free for all plunder look like a Sunday school picnic. Watch this space.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Embedded generation cannot consume transmission or distribution capacity. A site is not allowed to have say 1MW grid infrastructure in place and then add 5MW of solar. Where the transmission and distribution capacity disappeared to is the special applications for wheeling.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    This academic article that is devoid of the lived reality of South Africans with regard to the ANC created electricity crisis is really misleading to say the least. The angle of analysis that Mark Swilling takes is not factoring many issues that are in the budget. Firstly, he ignores the fact that the ANC has woken up to the issue as it is on the ballot in the 2024 elections. It has to be seen to be doing something about the crisis and secondly it wants to strategically deflect the responsibility of the crisis from itself to some few individuals. The taking of the debt of R254 billion amongst other issues that the Minister said was that it would allow Eskom not only to pay its debt but to build transmission lines for the connection of independent power producers to the grid and to be able to carry out maintenance of its ailing fleet. His insider approach creates a lot of misleading statements and the notion that de Ruyter has cast aspersions on the JETP is very silly and nonsensical because corruption at Eskom has brought us where we are by his friends in the ANC. The solar panels have been already fitted by the majority of those who can afford and it excludes the 20 million on social grants and low income household that are the majority. The transfer of debt to the fiscus increases the debt to GDP. He thinks the ANC will be in power after next year elections and the program will have continuity and he must think again.

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      There are a number of points you raise. I’ll take one, “power after the next election”. Very important to think about. This can go two ways.

      1/. The ANC and maybe the EFF take the majority share, and the ANC decides that they need the EFF as a partner. That will be catastrophic for SA. All these good plans will evaporate in a flash. SA will not only be a failed state, it will be a failed trash heap!

      2/. The ANC and DA get into bed together. This will not be risk free but the results could be amazingly successful. The DA will not destroy the Just Energy Transition Partnership, but will probably enhance it. The economic attitude of the country will sky rocket! Individuals will be more positive and invest. The Common Man/Lady (there is the “common man” but is there the “common lady”? mmm) will be hugely positive and INVEST IN SA!! There will be an increase in foreign investment like never before.

  • Alley Cat says:

    Interesting and seemingly valid point about the rooftop solar subsidy. Neverthought of it like that.

  • Dragon Slayer says:

    The his response to the pending court action and in his answering affidavit, Ramaphosa said “load-shedding does not constitute a dereliction of duty on his part or that of national government as the law places the responsibility for electricity provision on municipalities.”
    Very clearly, the ANC’s strategy going into 2024 is to bamboozle the majority poor and vulnerable that the problem is the ‘government’. That the ANC is just a political party. One that is relentlessly working for the poor and marginalised. That they alone are fighting local government failure by warding off opposition parties manipulated by the parasitic private sector and the mythical third force.
    The tragedy is that after nearly 30 years of government’s cadre deployment and utterly failed education the ANC has been successful only in keeping the long suffering majority controllably dumb and dependent enough to believe them.

  • Harro von Blottnitz says:

    You are correct Mark: the de Ruyter interview drowned out the real big news of the week. I thought you might throw in a word or two about ‘state craft’ into this analysis? Seems there are still some in the Treasury and the Presidency that master this art? But yes, a leadership divided results in a house divided and all falling behind further.

  • Mac R says:

    The scale of the effort required is not appreciated. And the root cause of load shedding is not addressed.

    Re: Scale:
    Our transmission “deficit” is a bottleneck and requires 5x what we’re building today.

    The solar installation required is orders of magnitude bigger than what we’ve done before.

    Even if we have incredibly competent people who want to solve the problems, bottlenecks will pop up everywhere. In imports, in labour required for installation, in funding, and in regulation. This will slow down everything.

    And in the meantime, we’re heading for Stage 10 load shedding from May to August at least.

    I think it takes a massive leap of faith to think that we can address the shortfalls in energy in the coming two years.

    And then we’re ignoring the elephant in the room: that the problem with load shedding isn’t an engineering one.

    It’s political.

    Politics & politicians are at the core of why we are here. Rebates and marginal incentives can help put the brakes on but will not take away the origin of the problems.

  • Deon Botha-Richards says:

    Mostly a great article. Right up until it called baseload archaic. Baseload is not failing us. The availability factor of that baseload is failing us. Having intermittent power closer to the point of use won’t improve energy security.

    And renewable energy isn’t the cheapest over the full lifetime either. That’s a complete myth.

    If you truly want reliable and cheap power build nuclear.

    At least this does acknowledge that short term gas generation is necessary. Hopefully that will mean Karpowerships will be implemented but not for 20 years.

  • Thomas Coggin says:

    Thanks for an informative piece. The focus on transition rather than generation makes sense, but it does not (and I suppose, cannot) deal with three core issues. First, it cannot tackle the criminality (inc. corruption) in the energy sector, which continues to be a major factor of energy scarcity in South Africa; there is no reason why the gangster state will not evolve in its modus operandi with the devolution of the energy supply. Second, it cannot tackle the factionalism within the ANC, threatening policy certainty and perhaps causing the likes of DMRE to drag their feet on the ERA amendments. And, third, it cannot account for the possibility and lack of predictability of national coalition governance next year; the instability in policy and governance doesn’t bode well for an incapable state trying to deal with a parallel gangster state.

    • Josie Rowe-Setz says:

      It woukd be good to see an actual delivery plan of what exactly, EXACTLY, is going to happen, by what date. And who exactly, is responsible. For example, if BESS is to be rolled out, where, when, by whom, what cost, and with what expected impact on electricity delivery, at what cost. And for whom. I regret to say that without that level of clear commitment (and surely Eskom has these plans) its difficult to assess any promises that may be made.

      Why is a practical, delivery plan to which we can hold public services and institutions not published? Otherwise its rhetoric with nothing tangible to hold officials accountable

  • mike muller says:

    Wonderful, after promoting solar and wind for many years as the magical solution we now realise that we will need transmission too!

    And, once we have that and the proportion of intermittent renewables grows, we will discover that we need serious long duration storage for those times when the wind doesn’t blow and we have a week or two of cloudy weather. That will cost more than the transmission! And take longer.

    Of course, it would help if we could mobilise some gas generation quickly, preferably domestic not on ships so that it stays as backup after the first five years have paid off the investment. But the gas will have to come from somewhere and, since the environmental enthusiasts have blocked domestic production, we will be dependent on a very unpredictable and likely expensive world market.

    Too late to learn, it would have been a good idea to develop a prioritised, phased strategy and implemented all the elements to come together at the right time rather than discovering, by accident, how important they are.

    There is some consolation is watching the people who contributed so much to the problems now living with the consequences of their poor judgement. Unfortunately, so do the rest of us.

    • Joseph Donnelly says:

      With everyone focusing on solar and wind power maybe we are missing other possible energy solutions for instance bio gas generators which can be produced by decomposing organic material such as chicken litter, sugar cane or any other food waste product. These plants can be built in farming communities which will not be dependent on the grid and can also be coupled up with solar and wind as hybrid power generation plants. These generators are available you just require the bio gas plants of which the technology for is also locally available.

  • Johan Buys says:

    as its owners, we deserve a beneficiaries list of the transmission grid capacity allocations that make power available to some and under what terms this was granted.

    One scenario that the nation must prepare for is energy allocation to some instead of all. So get ready for non-universal loadshredding, with select institutions and companies being exempt. The most likely allocation basis is votes.

    Electricity has been weaponized in the struggle for control of the ANC and government and access to power and money.

    Bring Your Own is the rational response from those that can. This too will have painful consequences, as many businesses will have to change business models from 24h a day to 12h a day unless they have ENORMOUS rooftop and private fields capacity for behind-the-meter solar.

    As to generation, the fastest scale is we should be doing enormous on-land and permanent natural gas. Saldanha Bay and Richard’s Bay for example have very big transmission capacity and safe natural harbors for LNG ships.

  • Stefanie Schutte says:

    A very informative article. Thank you.

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