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Rolling blackouts: Light at the end of the tunnel?

- Ufrieda Ho

SA’s could create a new model for many countries facing power shortages but it could also lead to more muddling in the dark.

Electricity and blackouts | Curiosity 15: #Energy ©

South Africans by now all know that the state power utility, Eskom, is in a dizzying death spiral and that the country looks set for more years of power cuts. But rock bottom is about as good a place as any to start finding a way for SA to crawl out of this mess.

The reality and outrage around Stage 6 rolling blackouts have come with sober reckoning of how South Africa ended up in the deadening abyss of a power crisis, now veering towards collapse.

Reckoning continues after a summer of the worst loadshedding in the country to date, and as more of the web of state capture – as set out in the Zondo Commission’s report – reveals the extent of corruption, looting, and sabotage at the state-owned power utility.

Power in the ‘90s

There have also been years of systematic stripping of technical and management capacity, while none of the appropriate skills transfer and development necessary for continuity and growth at the utility was done.

Analysts have tracked this slide at Eskom as far back as Thabo Mbeki’s presidency in the late 1990s. The ANC’s priority of politicking, rather than governing competently, compromised the development and strategic investment needed to ensure a robust and durable energy generation plan.

The bleak picture of Eskom’s slide to rot leaves the country’s ‘what next?’ in terms of power supply looking like more of the same loadshedding nightmare, and with it the devastating impacts on the economy and people’s day-to-day lives. At some point, a plan of action needs to kick in. 

State of emergency, incentives, penalties

That ‘some point’, says Professor Rod Crompton, should have arrived by 2022 already. Crompton, who is Visiting Adjunct Professor in the Wits Business School’s African Energy Leadership Centre\ and a long-serving non-executive member of the Eskom board, says declaring a state of emergency is a first step.

“It’s a short-term measure of an ‘all hands-on deck’ approach in which all citizens are involved in dealing with the electricity crisis,” says Crompton.

He says thousands of small solar power stations – from those in private homes and small businesses, to commercial and industrial enterprises – should be supplying surplus power to the grid to lessen the burden of loadshedding. “This can be further ramped up through tax incentives and reviving electricity substitution initiatives that have gone quiet,” he says.

One such initiative is the liquid petroleum gas (LPG) programme, which the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) announced in April 2021.

The programme was meant to transform the sector to allow for more small, black-owned enterprises to enter the LPG supply chain, and looked to target increased household LPG use for cooking and heating.

“A rapid introduction of tax incentives and VAT exemptions for all kinds of power-generating equipment, from tiny to industrial scale, would be a big help. The DMRE’s initiatives could have also seen VAT exemptions on gas cookers and cylinders,” says Crompton. 

Another measure is for decisive action to be taken against electricity theft and non-payment of services. Things such as tip-off hotlines, reward schemes, and swift convictions and penalties for perpetrators could help.

Shedding light long-term

The longer term strategy to claw out of the electricity pit, however, requires a different kind of action. Crompton explains that while Eskom has a so-called ‘nine-point plan’ targeted at its generation facilities, its maintenance budget and technical and management competences are depleted.

“Some parts have to be ordered two years in advance of a planned maintenance shutdown, which requires detailed mechanical and financial planning – all difficult to do as unplanned maintenance has to be carried out as breakdowns happen,” he says.

Ultimately, state control and ownership at all levels of government must be removed from power infrastructure. However, this is easier said than done given the broken body politic in South Africa.

“The more government gets out of the way and allows the market to operate, the sooner we will see an end to loadshedding and a return to reliable supply,” says Crompton. “However, markets require rules and policing too, and the skills in government to draft such rules are few and far between. There’s also political antagonism from some quarters towards such a dispensation. The fact is skills exist outside of government and there are many willing to help. If only government would accept the help that it needs.”

The wake-up calls from the loadshedding crisis of this summer are as follows: 

  • Remove political interference
  • Remove state control of strategic infrastructure
  • End reliance on large, centralised power generation
  • Invest in appropriate technologies sooner
  • Skills development and deployment of the right people to do the job
  • Shore-up accountability, transparency, and clearer communication to the public.   

New designs on power

Eskom, which Crompton say is in “a death spiral”, can’t recover because it’s now an expensive relic. It is still in the process of being unbundled into three separate entities, which has been on the cards for years. In 2017, the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) laid a complaint with the Competition Commission challenging Eskom’s monopoly in the electricity market and called for a separation of Eskom’s management and control of the grid from its generating activities.

Professor Imraan Valodia, Pro Vice-Chancellor: Climate, Sustainability and Inequality, says South Africa must look to creating a flexible model for power generation. “We no longer need a big monopoly for power generation like Eskom. The technology and price of renewables are dropping fast; there are also all sorts of new entrants into the markets, but we have to open up the system so they can be part of the model,” he says.

‘Electricomplexity’ – Who gains, who loses?

Valodia believes there needs to be a different design of state regulation and control. “The power distribution system is not something that you want in private sector hands, because you want the state to make sure that the grid is producing and pushing electricity to those who need it, so that should be owned by the public. But it needs to be a model that allows for different types of power generation to become part of the energy mix easily.”

He adds that there’s also a need for the rapid scaling up of renewable energies; advancing research and development into overcoming existing challenges like ensuring reliable, long-term storage of energy from renewables; decentralising power generation; and improving integration of systems.

This, crucially, has to extend to reckoning with the fuller impact of how generation and consumption of energy impacts the environment and the most vulnerable in society. Control and access to electricity and energy still comes down to the divides between the haves and the have-nots, locally and globally, says Valodia.

“In South Africa we have had very cheap energy for years, but it is because we have never counted the cost to the environment, to emissions and global warming, and to people’s health,” says Valodia.

“There’s also the ongoing debate between the Global North and the Global South of why countries in the north, which are the world’s biggest polluters, don’t want countries in Africa to invest in fossil fuel industries, even though they have happily been using oil and gas for generations,” he says, emphasising the complexity of the story of electricity – which is also about who stands to gain and who are the losers.

Opportunities in crises

For Willie Cronje, Professor in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering, there are opportunities that will come from walking away from Eskom. “As it is, Eskom will never be able to catch up on the political folly that led to lost decades of missed maintenance and strategic investment,” he says. “Eskom ran up a deficit over the years and now too much damage has been done. But this crisis creates new demands and new opportunities, for those who are providing solar power panels or inverters, for instance, so this is a new growth industry.”

Cronje’s research focuses on smarter micro-grids. These are what he calls ‘stackable systems’ that start with individual rooftop solar, connect to become neighbourhood systems and then become city-wide grids. They’re small but flexible.

He echoes Crompton’s and Valodia’s sentiments that the time of centralised power is over. “Mega level energy generation means things can become mega mess-ups,” he says. Cronje points out that South Africa’s loadshedding – ostensibly a way to manage electricity distribution to avert a total power breakdown in the country – has made the country a high profile “case to watch”. Many other countries also face looming energy crises, exacerbated by the knock-on effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago.

“Worldwide, electricity infrastructure has been ageing, so the shortages of energy are being felt across the globe. So, in a strange way, South Africa is ahead of the curve, and we are starting to see people coming to South Africa to see how we deal with this crisis,” says Cronje.

It’s another reason why our ‘what next?’ must be light at the end of the tunnel and not more muddling in the dark.

  • Ufrieda Ho is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation.
  • Read more in the 15th issue, themed: #Energy. We explore energy research into finding solutions for SA's energy crisis, illuminate energy needs of people with disabilities, address the energy and digital divide in an unequal society, and investigate the origins of fire control.