Electricity management

2007-11-26 00:00

Few things distinguish the haves from the have-nots in this country more significantly than access to electricity supplies. While past neglect kept thousands upon thousands of people dependant on candles, wood and paraffin, developed sections of the community have become so reliant on electricity for just about every conceivable activity in commerce, industry, communications and domestic life that power outages are all but completely disabling. Correcting that imbalance has been one of the most commendable of post-1994 government initiatives, but the costs are now becoming dauntingly evident.

Demand is outstripping supply. With the problem exacerbated by South Africa’s continuing dependence on environmentally-damaging coal-fired power stations, it will take some seven years to get generating capacity up to scratch. Alarmingly, Eskom has recently warned that it will need to increase electricity tariffs by at least 20% annually for the next five years to meet the costs of its expansion plans and, while the National Energy Regulator has not granted the 18,7% hike sought for 2008, the 14,2% offered instead is still a huge blow to consumers.

Meanwhile power generation is running so close to capacity that virtually any hitch results in load-shedding and the public has been advised that further outages, all across the country and throughout the seven-year upgrading period, are inevitable.

Nor is it only a matter of temporarily inadequate generating capacity. People have long been aware that at municipal level the upgrading and even the maintenance of the supply infrastructure have been badly neglected. There is more to this, too, than a lack of good sense and foresight. Many municipalities, instead of using the revenue from electricity account payments to maintain and develop the power network, have diverted it to other projects. Central government has now stepped in to check the irresponsible milking of this convenient cow by requiring that a proportion of electricity tariffs must be ploughed back into the supply system, but much damage has already been done.

The government has also set up inter-departmental collaboration to develop an Energy Master Plan to deal with the escalating problem. This is encouraging news, but master plans only work if there are competent people on the ground to implement them. However much the overall situation may be yet another unhappy legacy of apartheid’s unfair discrimination, the drive to correct it has been seriously handicapped by the lack of planning and managerial ineptitude of recent years. The plain reality is that redress and transformation can’t happen unless there are capable, diligent and honest people in place to manage the process.

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