Opinionista Herman Mashaba 27 June 2016

Energy Poverty: Does City Power deserve its monopoly status?

City Power is a clear example of a serious global problem: providing publicly-subsidised credit to a monopoly utility.

The City of Johannesburg had good intentions when it established City Power as a separate entity of the municipality, but these have not come to fruition. Instead, what we now have is a growing crisis that will have a severe effect on human rights and economic growth.

This is a crisis that requires bold political leadership to resolve – leadership that is conspicuously absent in the current administration.

Last week, I visited the communities of Ennerdale, Lawley, and Klipspruit West, which, like a number of other communities across Johannesburg, have suffered from ongoing power cuts. This is not Eskom’s fault – it is the fault of City Power’s infrastructure.

Power cuts are taking place when Johannesburg is in the grip of a cold winter, which is only going to get colder. This is an example of “energy poverty”.

Johannesburg is afflicted by at least 10 power outages a day. In March alone, 180,000 residents and numerous small businesses in Alexandra were hit by five outages.

It is clear that City Power is failing in its duty to provide Johannesburg’s residents with access to electricity.

City Power claims that it seeks to develop and incentivise City Power employees. Yet City Power lacks the requisite skilled technical staff and instead employs subcontractors. This begs the question as to why City Power should enjoy their monopoly status when they are incapable of delivering on their mandate.

Let me give you a real example of how this unfolds.

In April, Windsor Glen residents were without power for four days, from Thursday to Sunday. Parents approached me and explained their difficulty to heat their homes, keep their refrigerator on to keep food safe for consumption, and their children who had to study by candlelight in the evenings. Again, this crisis is a familiar story of incompetence and a failure to get the basics right.

I heard about understaffed depots, ageing substations, and under-trained technicians. I heard about vital work not being carried over from day shifts to night shifts. Incredulously, at this time of crisis, the team leader went on leave and one electrician was left to do the job. Subcontractors, who were not managed properly, reported that lights were out in Collins Street, when the lights were actually out in another street – Kotler Street. Another subcontractor claimed that he was not qualified to work on overhead cables. He and others could have been fatally injured.

I also discovered that there is no system in place to check whether or not the power has been restored. One would think that a crisis like this would drive the incumbent mayor to distraction. Yet just weeks earlier in his 2016 SOCA address, Parks Tau failed to outline plans to ensure that City Power had a proactive strategy to turn the crisis around. Since then he has not uttered one word as to why he has not provided leadership and equipped City Power with the necessary resources and expertise to provide effective and efficient maintenance of electricity infrastructure.

It is time to turn the page.

City Power needs to do four things immediately: train a fully skilled technical staff, develop a backup scheme in case of an emergency – such as a full City Power failure, invest in upgrading our ageing infrastructure like ageing substations and technology, and safely electrify informal settlements. Every month, at least two people are killed by exposed and hanging cables in townships like Zandspruit and Alexandra.

I will ensure all these things are fixed at City Power when I am elected on 3 August.

A DA-led government in Johannesburg will ensure that the lights are switched on all the time. 

When elected Mayor on 3 August, my administration will immediately budget for the employment of additional technicians, and an artisan-training programme within City Power to train electricians and essential technical staff. The current allocation of two technicians per region, per shift, is simply unsustainable for such a large city.

Although City Power has a maintenance plan, they always react to maintenance problems.

The Auditor-General found that in 2015-2016, 19% of Johannesburg’s electricity was lost, resulting in R2.3-billion in lost revenue. Nearly a billion rand was lost as a result of technical issues, such as power lost during transmission. The loss of power has a domino effect on jobs because the loss of business output is greater than the unit cost of producing electricity. Order deadlines are misses, and people are laid off.

The provider needs a change in management strategy that invests time and resources into proactively ensuring that infrastructure is properly maintained – and a strategy that uses technology to predict outages through a “smart grid”. I’ve already spelt out in Daily Maverick how my administration will utilise the Internet of Everything to bolster service delivery and energy savings. Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) is a two-way communication system of smart devices on both the utility (in this case City Power) and the customer side of the electricity meter. The AMI can measure and record electricity usage at a minimum of hourly intervals, and provide the data to both the utility and the customer at least once a day.

Finally, we cannot stop thinking about the future. In South Africa, some political parties tend to have an ostrich mentality about the global context. We cannot relegate climate change and pollution to the bottom of the policy agenda, because it is our children and grandchildren who will have to live with the consequences of our environmental stewardship.

If we are going to rise to the challenge of climate change, we are going to have to change how we view the entire electricity sector. This innovation is going to require a flexible and adaptive system of energy production, and, in particular, how we harness green technologies and sustainable energy production.

There is an immediate crisis, and a longer-term crisis, which I am ready to face. The only way to end City Power cuts is to cut ANC power in Johannesburg on 3 August. DM

Mashaba is DA’s Johannesburg’s mayoral candidate.

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