Residents of South Africa will remember 2022 for a host of different reasons, but one collective memory will be of the almost unremitting burden of power cuts.
In total, there were 157 full days of load shedding (spread across the year) in 2022, compared to 48 days in 2021, and 35 days in 2020. Sadly, and shockingly, the worst is yet to come, with most energy analysts predicting that 2023 is likely to see at least 200 full days of load shedding. This will mean that over the year, there will be more hours without power than with it.
As we all currently sit in the dark, mulling over how long Stage 6 will last, fearing what Stages 7 and 8 may bring, we know that we will be paying at least 19% more for electricity – when we are actually able to access it. While there is a distinctly farcical element to all of this, in reality, the ongoing crisis at Eskom is a very real tragedy for South Africa.
Last year was so bad, and this year is likely to be worse, because of the appalling availability of Eskom’s fleet of power stations.
In the first half of last year, the average weekly availability of Eskom’s fleet of power stations had slipped to less than 60%, meaning that at any one time, some 40% of its fleet was not generating electricity.
Below 50% for the first time
In the second half of the year, things got even worse. At the beginning of December, only 52% of Eskom’s fleet was generating electricity, and by the end of that month, the figure slipped below 50% for the first time. This means that of 48,000MW of potential capacity, less than 24,000MW was operational.
The causes of this availability crisis are now well known. They are the result of poor policy choices, both historically and continuing now, rampant corruption, catastrophic mismanagement and, to a certain extent, sabotage.
Now, with Stage 4 or even Stage 6 likely to become our new normal (for the foreseeable future), South Africans are right to be demanding when they might expect an end to this deeply damaging energy crisis.
Sadly, until the government develops a socially inclusive and climate-conscious energy plan for the country, we can expect more of the same. It will be more of the same because the long-term consequences of corruption and mismanagement have so weakened Eskom and its fleet that there are no quick fixes, despite Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe’s recent spurious assertion that load shedding can be solved within six to 12 months.
It will also be more of the same because of the continuation of poor policy choices and poor planning by the government. Despite the rhetoric around a Just Transition from certain parts of government, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy remains wedded to an archaic electricity future dominated by costly and polluting coal, gas and nuclear power.
South Africa’s electricity plan, known as the 2019 Integrated Resource Plan, is seriously out of date and commits South Africa to new coal, new nuclear (and also the extension in the life of existing nuclear) and new gas plants.
UN climate change obligations failure
None of these options are economically viable, none can be built timeously to alleviate the current crisis, and none are environmentally viable within the context of both local pollution and climate change. In fact, current energy planning will result in South Africa failing to meet its climate change obligations to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change.
Coal is polluting, expensive and open to corruption. Eskom’s entire coal fleet needs to be retired in an organised and just fashion; no new coal-fired power stations should be built.
As all serious research has shown, including that undertaken by the government-funded Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), there is no future for coal in electricity generation in South Africa.
Say no to nuclear
Nuclear power is among the most expensive to build and takes, at the very least, 10 years to be added to the grid. Its construction is also plagued with corruption.
Recent research has shown that there is also no economic case, let alone environmental case, for new, polluting fossil-gas power plants in South Africa.
It will probably come as no surprise to learn that the solution to South Africa’s electricity woes comes in the form of renewable energy. Both solar and wind generation are now by far the cheapest ways to generate electricity in South Africa – a country blessed with massive solar and wind resources.
It is now cheaper to build new utility-scale renewable energy plants than to keep existing fossil fuels plants operating. In addition, the cost of utility-scale renewable energy plants with storage is falling so rapidly that they are now cheaper to build than new coal plants, and will only get cheaper as time passes.
In the context of South Africa’s ongoing energy problems, it should also be remembered that on average, South Africa’s utility-scale renewable energy plants have been built within two years and on budget, a far shorter period than is possible for any other energy source.
As a matter of urgency, therefore, the government should drop its plans for new coal, for new nuclear and for new gas, and instead focus on the speedy introduction of the least-cost and least-polluting renewable energy sources, including storage options.
Such a programme could also explore the potential for green hydrogen – provided it is done in an inclusive and democratic manner.
This urgently required energy transition must be a just one for those currently working in the costly and polluting fossil and nuclear energy sectors. Research shows, however, that the benefits that will flow from a wholesale transition to renewable energy will seriously outweigh the costs.
While jobs will undoubtedly be lost in the coal sector in particular, experience from other countries, and from modelling in South Africa, shows that more and better jobs will be created by a transition to renewable energy sources. It is therefore critical that reskilling and retraining are key components of this transition.
The transition funding
When the extensive infrastructural costs of this transition, such as the urgent need to upgrade grid infrastructure to enable the wholesale expansion of renewable energy sources, are considered, concern is expressed from some quarters about where the money will come from.
But it is worth restating that renewable energy options are the cheapest options for South Africa. Without this transition, electricity costs will be higher for both industry and residential consumers, while pollution will be worse, negatively impacting health outcomes and threatening South Africa’s international climate-change commitments.
When naysayers mention costs, let us not forget the R14-trillion worth of illegal coal contracts entered into by Eskom during the period of State Capture; the R500-billion likely to be spent to finish the R80-billion (sic) Medupi and Kusile coal-fired power stations; the R220-billion that was to be spent on the gas Karpowerships deal; the estimated R500-billion cost to the South African economy of extending the life of Koeberg nuclear power station; or the billions Eskom will likely spend on polluting diesel this year, to try and keep the lights on (it spent R17-billion on diesel in 2022).
Let’s also not forget the estimated R4-billion daily cost of Stage 6 to the South African economy.
South Africa can afford this critical just transition to renewable energy – in fact, South Africa cannot afford not to make this transition. DM/OBP