Power crisis: Is apartheid really to blame?

2015-01-26 08:00

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Eskom gave state nearly a decade’s warning to urgently approve new power stations in support of ambitious electrification programme

President Jacob Zuma this week repeated his cure-all defence for Eskom’s lack of electricity capacity: the South African power system was designed for a white minority.

This time it was during a speech to the South African delegation at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

“Our electricity infrastructure, for example, was never designed to serve an expanded citizenry. Last year we celebrated the expansion of electricity to 11 million households,” reads President Zuma’s prepared speech.

“In the past six months of the year, we reached more than 100 000 homes. This extension of electricity to more households that had been excluded in the past, coupled with a growing economy, has sharply put pressure on the infrastructure, which needs improved maintenance and expansion.”

Placing the ongoing electrification of homes at the heart of the power crisis suggests that the process used far more power than anticipated.

City Press examined some of the facts and figures to explore Zuma and his advisers’ assessment.

In 1997, the country’s peak demand was at 28?330 megawatts. Today, in summer, it is roughly 30?500MW.

Then, as now, residential users consumed about 18% of the country’s power, rising to about 35% at peak times, said Eskom spokesperson Andrew Etzinger.

That amounts to a little over 10?000MW, measured against 9?900MW in 1997, at peak.

Without Eskom’s demand-reducing interventions, residential power use would by now easily top 12?000MW at peak times, says Etzinger.

Eskom, in the 1990s, gave the state nearly a decade’s warning to urgently approve the building of new power stations.

In an energy white paper released in December 1998 – which is still available on the department of energy’s website – the power crunch was anticipated with almost complete accuracy long before it became inevitable.

“Eskom’s current generation capacity surplus will be fully utilised by about 2007,” it reads.

“The next decision on supply-side investments will probably have to be taken by the end of 1999 to ensure that the electricity needs of the next decade are met,” it continues.

Cabinet’s decision to construct the Medupi power station was nevertheless delayed until 2005, after the government spent years planning for partial privatisation of the power system. At this time the most rapid and ambitious part of the electrification programme had already happened.

By 1999, the first five-year phase of the reconstruction and development plan had added about 2.5?million residential consumers to the power grid, bringing the total to 6 million. By 2005, another 1.5?million houses were electrified, taking the total to 7.5?million.

In 2006 energy regulator Nersa stopped publishing its annual overview of electricity supply and use, which had previously offered precise details about who used what.

Etzinger told City Press the company understood its customer base very well, but was not certain of how the power redistributed through municipalities – about 40% of the total – gets used.

Eskom’s research indicates that household consumption of power has remained at 18% of the national total.

A 1998 energy white paper shows that Eskom accurately predicted current power problems


SA’s power trade

Eskom’s power trade with neighbouring countries accounts for about 0.6% of its power sales.

The utility’s spokesperson, Andrew Etzinger, said the company was also able to “control [this process] in our favour” when power supplies were tight. By and large, Eskom imports power nearly equivalent to what it exports (see graphic).

Most of South Africa’s power imports come from ­Mozambique’s Cahora Bassa hydroelectric plant. Originally built by a Portuguese-South African consortium in the 1970s, the dam’s power generators stood idle from 1982 until 1997 after sustained sabotage attacks by Renamo.

South Africa joined the Southern African Power Pool in 1995 and Cahora power imports started soon after.

­Exports escalated sharply in 2003 due to Eskom’s supply to the Mozal aluminium smelter. Sales into Mozambique account for about 67% of all power exports.

South Africa receives 1?500MW from Cahora, but sends back 1?000MW to Mozal, says Etzinger. In comparison, trade with other neighbouring countries is “very small”, in the order of 100MW.

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