Making a plan

2008-02-01 00:00

In recent weeks, from the spate of outages to the accusations and excuses in Parliament on Wednesday, South Africans have all had to get to grips with the electricity crisis, and most of us, now, have accepted that load shedding and its consequences have become part of our lives. But what remains so annoying is that there has still been no real acceptance of culpability, but instead plenty of buck-passing, which has never allowed us to identify clearly who should be held directly accountable.

Perhaps this is why the public has only discovered this week that Eskom’s coal-fired power stations, which should supply 90% of the country’s needs, are working at merely 75% of capacity, not because they’re old and decrepit, but because of inefficiencies caused by inadequate maintenance and an inability or reluctance to deal with technical problems, and because Eskom, in what appears to be a mindset of false economy, is making do with cheap, less efficient low-grade fuel.

Also, it was revealed last week that although there’s plenty of energy available, there’s a shortage of power. Surely use should be made of the power that some of the country’s biggest businesses are eager to sell to Eskom — in total, some 5 000 MW, almost equivalent to two Koeberg-sized nuclear power stations? Surely, too, Eskom should use the energy, easily available to it, from a variety of sources, including hydro, diesel generators, biogas, biomass, wood and solar?

The problem is, reportedly, that monopolistic Eskom, obsessed with profit margins, and prepared to pay only half of what it charges for electricity, will not pay a fair price for power and energy. So, although these sources are more environmentally friendly than coal-fired power and, although the necessary infrastructure could be quickly installed, those involved are reluctant to go ahead without the certainty that Eskom will continue to purchase their power, and at a fair price, once the crisis eases.

That’s the problem: our energy-saving strategies are “fractured and lacklustre”, according to analysts reported in a weekend newspaper, and no one seems to be taking responsibility for streamlining a power-saving policy. This, together with all the problems and bottlenecks and hold-ups in the generation of electricity, is why we’re in the state we’re in. What’s needed is effective leadership.

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