South Africa tackles power crisis

By Khanyi Magubane

South Africa’s rapidly growing economy and burgeoning urban population has seen an astronomical growth in the demand for electricity, beyond the country’s ability to meet the need.

The White Paper on energy policy released in 1998 indicated that South Africa’s ability to supply sufficient power would decrease in 2007. Recommendations made included an investment in infrastructure that would enable electricity utility Eskom to extend and increase its supply. Government at the time had intentions of privatising the industry and encouraged independent power suppliers to come to the fore.

In the White Paper government stipulated that, “To ensure the success of the electricity supply industry as a whole, various developments will have to be considered by government over time, namely: Giving customers the right to choose their electricity supplier; Introducing competition into the industry, especially the generation sector; Permitting open, non-discriminatory access to the transmission system; and Encouraging private sector participation in the industry.”

Last month, government admitted that by 2003 they realised that the plan had not had the envisioned results and that independent producers had not as keen to come forward as initially thought. Government then announced that a number of plans, to beef up infrastructure and build new power plants to supply electricity, would get underway.

However, as expected, the country started experiencing severe electricity shortages in early 2007. The problem escalated a year later – leading to the current crisis. This has resulted in Eskom having to take drastic measures in a bid to ensure that further power shortages are not experienced. Load shedding was devised as a short-term solution to deal with the problem.

Load shedding is a process whereby electricity supply is cut for a period of time to alleviate the pressure of increased demand. It is used as a last resort, when there is not enough electricity available to meet the demand from all of Eskom’s customers. It is a controlled way of rotating the available electricity among all customers. Load-shedding schedules are drawn up to ensure that a few areas do not bear the brunt of the shortages.

During a recent meeting between government and local government officials, it was decided that essential services such as hospitals would have uninterrupted power. Other major projects, such as the building of the Gautrain rapid rail, as well as other projects to be identified by municipalities, will also have uninterrupted power. The rationale behind load shedding is that by spreading the impact, affected areas are not interrupted for more than two hours at a time, and in most cases customers can be informed of interruptions in advance, according to Eskom.

The rapidly escalating negative effects of the electricity crisis led Eskom to urgently rope in government to find solutions to the problem. President Thabo Mbeki held a high-level meeting with Eskom management as well as relevant government departments to try and get to the bottom of the problem.

Cabinet also discussed the crisis during a top-level meeting in January this year. Government spokesperson Themba Maseko told reporters after the meeting that, “Government gives the assurance that everything is being done at the highest level of government, Eskom and key stakeholders to find an inclusive solution to the energy problem in the short, medium and long term.”

Mines were ordered to shut down temporarily, to relieve the pressure of the high output needed by the industrial sector. All underground activity at South Africa’s major mines halted for a week, after which 90 percent of power was restored. Eskom also set up national load shedding schedules, with a supply interruption of two hours at a time. Both the residential and business sectors have been affected

Following a number of consultative meetings between the parastatal and government, Public Enterprise Minister Alec Erwin, Eskom chief executive Jacob Maroga and Minerals and Energy Minister Buyelwa Sonjica announced an urgent electricity plan to address the deepening electricity crisis, which had hit private consumers and various sectors in the economy.

The Solution

Government plans to cut the country’s general electricity use by 10 percent. In order to achieve this target, the Eskom, together with government, announced in late January that a three-point plan would be used to counter the electricity crisis. Maroga explained that during this period, which started on 1 February and runs until 1 March, a reduction of 4 000 MW was needed.

The first phase will be achieved mainly through electricity cuts (load shedding) and should not take longer than a month. Two factors have been cited as possible contributors to prolonging the process: heavy rains in South Africa and the coal shortage at power stations. Starting on 1 March and running for a period of four months, Eskom, along with the country’s municipalities, will implement the power rationing phase of the plan. This is aimed at cutting usage by 3 000 MW. Municipalities will switch off larger areas for longer periods, but will alert residents beforehand.

The third phase of the plan will include a quota-based incentive scheme, for residents and businesses, as well as penalties for those exceeding their electricity rations.

South Africans have also been urged to save power in their homes by taking simple steps such as switching off geysers at certain times of the day when they are not in use, taking a shower instead of a bath as it uses less hot water, and also keeping the electricity off in rooms of the house that are not in use.

The mining sector has also reached an agreement with Eskom to decrease its power usage in return for an uninterrupted supply. Meanwhile consumers will see their electricity bills going up by 14.2 percent.

Long-term plans include the building of power plants using world-class technology. In November last year, Eskom awarded the biggest contracts to foreign companies in the country’s history for the building of the Medupi power plant.

Set to be built in Lephalele, in the Limpopo province, the 4 800 Megawatt baseload plant, made up of six 800 MW units, will be commissioned in phases with the first unit likely to go commercial in late 2011, or early 2012. Hitachi Power Europe and Hitachi Power Africa were awarded a R20-billion boiler contract.

The R13-billion contracts for the six turbine power islands have been awarded to Alstom. Hitachi Power Africa, headed in South Africa by Robin Duff, said the process of tendering with Eskom was a pleasure. “What we wanted to do was to maximise local content as well as well as develop further capacity where manufacturing already exists,” he said.

Hitachi has also been awarded a contract to build a similar power station in Witbank, in Mpumalanga province, utilising the local coal as power to run the plant.

Eskom has also announced that it plans to invest R150-billion over the next five years in upgrading the country’s power supply infrastructure. Money will also be spent on reopening three mothballed power stations, and 26 percent of the budget will be spent on the transmission and distribution system.

To facilitate its programmes, Eskom has approached the government for help in financing its R1.3-trillion power station building programmes.

The government has not confirmed that it has given the request an automatic thumbs up, as government policy calls for public enterprises such as Eskom to be self funding. But given the current crises, government has been in discussion with the power utility over the matter.

Recently, Statistics SA released figures indicating that South Africa’s electricity consumption during 2007 rose by 4.4% compared to 3.6 % in 2006. Last year’s electricity production by Eskom increased by 3.8%. The volume of electricity imported from outside the country increased from 2006’s 9 782 Gigawatt-hours to 11 318 Gigawatt-hours in 2007. This was a total increase of 15.7%.

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