Eskom faced with hard decisions to stabilise SA's electricity supply

Expert suggests that Eskom could consider staying on stage 1 load-shedding if the power problems were going to persist for some time.

11 November 2021 - 06:00
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Fixing problems at the Medupi power plant is going to be key to stabilising SA's electricity supply. File picture.
Fixing problems at the Medupi power plant is going to be key to stabilising SA's electricity supply. File picture.
Image: Makwena Manamela

Taking another look at the Turkish power ships deal, clearing the way for more renewable energy supplies and fixing the ongoing problems at Medupi and Kusile are among the best options the government has to fix SA’s electricity problems.

As another week of load-shedding hammered the country’s already struggling economy, the government was facing some tough decisions, economists and energy analysts told TimesLIVE.

“There are limited options open to Eskom to stabilise the situation, given that the challenges that have overwhelmed Eskom have developed over many years,” said North West University economist Prof Raymond Parsons.

The problems were the result of a “long-standing” combination of factors ranging from misguided energy policies to corruption and mismanagement, said Parsons, adding that load-shedding was needed to avoid a total breakdown in the national grid. 

To ameliorate the position, both the government and Eskom would have to improvise in the short term while long-term structural changes were implemented, he said. Potential actions included assembling technical experts from outside Eskom and the government to pool ideas on how the utility could cope, and cutting red tape and mobilising independent producers to boost capacity and expedite their supply coming on-stream.

“There are clearly a number of experts outside the public sector with supplementary advice and input that can help Eskom to pull through,” he said. “There’s a premium on improvisation now.”

The government might also have to relook at the Turkish power ship proposal as a short-term option though under more acceptable conditions, said Parsons. “The costs of not accessing this capacity on an emergency basis may now be higher if SA does not act promptly.”

If load-shedding was inevitable for the next few years then Eskom could consider staying permanently on stage one.

“This would give businesses and households a higher degree of predictability within which to plan ahead, but with less costly disruption,” he said.

Dr Azar Jammine, director and chief economist at Econometrix, said Eskom’s immediate options were limited.

“In the next month or two, they have no solution but to do as much maintenance work as possible,” he said.

Jammine noted that summer was already here and that electricity demand should not be as burdensome as it was.

“It’s not as if we’re having a heatwave and using air-conditioners,” he said.

In the longer term, the government needed to encourage renewables as much as possible while also understanding that they have their limitations. “You need baseload energy production because if the sun disappears and the wind goes, you still need some power and that’s where coal still has an important role to play,” he said.

Given SA’s vast reserves, coal was likely to play a significant role in power generation for “many years”, he added.

Nuclear power would also have to figure in the country’s future electricity generation.

“The challenge with nuclear is that the erection of nuclear plants is incredibly expensive but once you’ve got it going, the operational costs are very low,” he said.

The biggest problem with the now-abandoned nuclear deal that former president Jacob Zuma had signed with the Russians was that the cost would have been ruinous.

“It would have meant an incredible upfront liability that would have crippled the economy,” he said. “I don’t know if we would have needed that much nuclear power. A 2,000MW plant could have been affordable as opposed to the 9,600MW which was the Russian deal.”

Jammine urged the government to allow businesses to generate their own electricity.

He pointed to the timber industry, for example, which had huge amounts of waste from tree-felling operations which could be used to generate electricity for the sector, with surplus power being sold to the national grid.

The crisis meant Eskom either had to increase supply or reduce demand, said Chris Yelland, an independent energy analyst and MD of EE Business Intelligence.

“The first option would mean improving the existing fleet of power stations but more than half of it is not available for power generation,” he said.

It was critical that the problems at the Medupi and Kusile coal-fired megastations were resolved to ensue they ran properly. Yelland added.

Electricity users would also have to play a role, he warned. “We need to cut the unnecessary use of electricity,” he said.

Options included load-shifting which would involve, for example, remote control of geysers so that they were not on all the time, as well as wider use of energy- efficient appliances such as stoves and washing machines, and low-energy light bulbs.

Time-of-use tariffs could also be implemented where users were charged more during peak hours.

“Modern economies all use these techniques to bring in more supply,” he said.


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