SA’s emergency power plan

25 January 2008

South Africa’s Cabinet emerged from a two-day meeting on Friday with a top priority plan to tackle the country’s “national electricity emergency”, saying it was confident that SA’s healthy economic growth could be sustained, and stressing that there would be no freezing of new investment projects.

Speaking to journalists in Cape Town after the Cabinet meeting, Public Enterprises Minister Alec Erwin said the “unprecedented, unplanned” power outages that have hit South Africa over the last two weeks “must now be treated as a national electricity emergency that has to be addressed with the urgent, vigorous and co-ordinated actions commensurate with such an emergency situation.”

Erwin conceded that the government had been caught wrong-footed by the increased demand for electricity spurred by the robust economic growth of recent years, saying its instruction to state company Eskom to embark on a massive infrastructure building programme in 2004 “was, in hindsight, late.”

Eskom plans to invest R150-billion in its power supply infrastructure over the next five years, mostly on new power stations, including the return to service of three mothballed power stations.

In addition, the government made moves towards the end of last year to fast-track electricity projects by independent power producers, as well as electricity co-generation projects involving both Eskom and private industry.

“Both of these are now receiving urgent attention, and announcements will be made as we are able to provide certainty,” Erwin said.

In the meantime, however, it was crucial to bring South Africa’s electricity supply and distribution system “back into balance”, both to reduce the need for power cuts and to allow for system maintenance to take place without putting the system under even greater stress.

Key to this, Erwin said, was reducing demand. As an immediate, “quick hit” measure to achieve this, the government would soon introduce a power-rationing programme, setting quotas for industrial, commercial and residential users and using both incentives and penalties to ensure that these quotas are met.

Minerals and Energy Minister Buyelwa Sonjica, briefing journalists alongside Erwin, said the examples of countries like Cuba and Brazil had shown that an energy crisis “can be turned around to make a country grow even more economically and save substantial amounts of money if a nationwide energy efficiency drive is politically driven.”

Erwin said the government viewed the next two years as being critical.

“We must stress that the successful implementation of these programmes will give us much more comfort within a two-year period,” Erwin said. “It is also critical to stress that the growth of South Africa’s economy at the current healthy levels can continue if we change our behaviour and become more energy efficient.

“This emergency must entrench energy efficiency.”

Erwin said that South African consumers, long used to getting their electricity extremely cheaply by international standards, would also have to face up to the reality of “further significant increases in electricity prices.

“However, such increases will be implemented so as to significantly lessen their impact on the poor,” Erwin said, adding that despite the increases South Africa would still remain “the most competitive large energy system in the world”.

Regarding the 2010 Fifa World Cup, Erwin said the Cabinet was fully briefed on the electricity situation “as it specifically relates to the World Cup and on general progress with the preparations for infrastructure for 2010. There is no threat to the successful holding of the event, as plans to ensure electricity security in that period are well advanced.”

Other measures the government aims to implement in order to reduce South Africa’s demand for electricity include:

  • Increasing the use of more efficient lighting, replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light fittings.
  • Increasing the use of of solar water heaters.
  • Increasing the use of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LP Gas) for domestic cooking.
  • Converting traffic and other public lights to solar power with battery backup.
  • Introducing smart metering to enable Eskom, or municipal power distributors, to remotely manage residential customer load during times of peak demand.

SAinfo reporter

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