South Africa: How Pretoria Needs to Fix Its Electricity Crisis

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Photo: Sello Ntoane/Earthlife

On World Environment Day, 5th June; protesters gathered outside Eskom for a series of pickets demonstrating how hazardous Nuclear is to the environment.

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South Africans have in recent years joined the ranks of those on the continent suffering from regular power cuts. While the government has accepted responsibility for failing to anticipate the energy needs of a growing economy during former President Thabo Mbeki’s administration, the most recent outages sweeping the country have been triggered by a failure to maintain existing power stations and poor corporate governance within Eskom, the state-owned energy utility – problems which government ministers in charge are struggling to get to grips with. Ola Bello and Busisipho Siyobi of the South African Institute of International Affairs say clearer prioritisation and coherence are needed to turn the country’s energy fortunes around.

Is there clarity and coherence in current measures being taken by South Africa’s government to address the country’s critical energy challenges?

Last month’s suspension of four top executives of Eskom, the state-owned energy utility, and the subsequent resignation of its chair, have partly overshadowed the five-point plan adopted by the Cabinet in December to address South Africa’s electricity supply constraints. The plan made provision for a technical implementation “war room” under the supervision of a ministerial cluster including the National Treasury and the departments of Energy, Public Enterprises, Economic Development, Water and Sanitation and Corporate Governance and Traditional Affairs.

This was tasked with addressing five intervention areas, which included emergency measures to be implemented by Eskom during an initial 30-day period, harnessing co-generation opportunities in partnership with the private sector, and accelerating the substitution of diesel with gas to drive power stations. Other measures include the launching of a coal-independent power programme, exploring the nuclear option alongside renewable energy sources, and managing demand through energy efficient technologies.

Apart from the government departments tasked with the plan, technicians from Eskom, joined by experts from elsewhere in government, were charged with providing support to the war room. Crucially, the plan was conceived not only to ensure additional electricity supply, but also to make sure that contract management and oversight functions are efficiently exercised.

While it is unclear how an independent inquiry – initiated on March 12 to look into challenges such as poor generation capacity, delays in building infrastructure and Eskom’s primary energy and cash flow problems – are linked to the five-point intervention plan, it is useful to explore whether the plan goes far enough in addressing South Africa’s energy challenge.

The severity of the power problem for industry is underlined by the decision of some private sector actors, such as Sibanye Gold Limited, to become energy-independent. Sibanye aims to invest in solar power and build its own coal-fired plants with the capacity to generate 200-600 MW of electricity. Whether such a move portends an impending mass defection of the corporate sector from the national grid remains to be seen. What is beyond doubt is waning private sector confidence in the government’s ability to address the country’s electricity constraints.

South Africa’s short- to medium-term energy plans involve a mix of renewable and non-renewable sources. However, it is often not clear how the government ranks or prioritises each of those sources in terms of their fit, commercial viability and implications for national finance. Clear prioritisation by government is needed, particularly in light of the fiscal constraints unveiled in the 2015 budget.

On renewables for example, independent power producers (IPPs) offer market-driven options for government to rapidly address supplies constraints. It has long been clear that IPP-sourced electricity holds some advantages, including private sector finance and a focus on renewables. Both factors could inject healthy competition into the national energy sector. Why the government is not doing more to encourage IPPs has confounded many analysts.

To Eskom’s credit, some of its recent improvement plans have been proceeding well. The long-delayed Medupi Unit 6 is now partly operational, though generating only a fraction of its planned capacity. Eskom is also managing demand better, including through retrofitting energy-efficient technologies in residential dwellings. There might also be an argument for extending rebate programmes aimed at encouraging use of more energy-efficient water heaters, for example.

However, whilst the government announced that it will provide Eskom with 23 billion rand (U.S. $ 1.9 billion) in the next fiscal year, it is not yet clear how this injection will be distributed across the five areas in the government’s plan. On nuclear procurement, the government in 2014 signed Inter-Governmental Agreements with vendors from supplier nations, including the United States, South Korea, Russia, France and China. The government promised to engage all the vendors in a transparent and competitive procurement process. Given the financial burden of a nuclear energy option, the affordability of this procurement plan sits uneasily with the government’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2010-2030.

The government also recently announced steps to add another 800MW of electricity to the grid through co-generation agreements with private investors. Negotiations for other co-generation projects will similarly be concluded by mid-2015. These announcements are commendable as they clearly outline a path towards reaching the second objective in the five-point plan, namely to harness co-generation opportunities with the private sector to assist energy diversification. Yet, in the current debates on South Africa’s energy mix, there is lack of clarity on the government’s rationale for prioritising key elements in its energy mix.

Notably, elements of the government’s nuclear procurement plans and new investments in coal-fired plants have been criticised, respectively for their huge cost, long lead time and incongruity with the country’s aspiration for a cleaner energy future. As noted earlier, a clearer assessment of the suitability, efficiency and financial performance of different energy sources is essential. Also, government must outline a comprehensive energy vision to restore public confidence in its ability to lead responsibly on managing these challenges.

A good first step in this direction will be the publication of a Cabinet-endorsed update to the IRP 2010-2030, informed by comprehensive consultation with all important stakeholders. This must be at the core of government efforts to align energy planning and implementation with South Africa’s broader economic and financial reality.

It is also to be hoped that the ongoing enquiry into Eskom’s operational challenges will succeed in revealing the underlying causes of its problems. That will go a long way towards enabling the government to proffer comprehensive, informed solutions that can help to loosen the stranglehold of Eskom’s inefficiencies on the economy.

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