Eskom may have been able to avoid the current rolling blackouts had it not stopped the country’s renewable energy programme in its tracks two years ago, say energy experts.
Eskom would also have been able to save about R725m a year in diesel for the emergency open cycle turbines that help keep the lights on, had the extra 2000MW of wind and solar power already been on the grid as originally planned.
But because Eskom stymied the renewable energy programme in 2016 - the first of these power plants will now come online only in 2020.
Meanwhile Eskom has budgeted another R1bn for diesel to keep these turbines generating emergency power to reduce the risk of rolling blackouts. This is one of the most expensive forms of electricity generation.
The SA Wind Energy Association (Sawea) said if Eskom had signed power purchase agreements in 2016 “another 2000MW of renewable energy power would now be contributing to the South African power supply, while also avoiding diesel costs”.
Energy expert and engineer Tobias Bischof-Niemz, who established the energy centre at the CSIR, went further and said in a tweet that if Eskom had not stopped the implementation of “very cheap” solar photovoltaic and wind energy power projects, “it would very likely not have to burn any diesel right now, nor would it have to load shed.”
Bischof-Niemz, who now works for a renewable energy company in Germany, worked at Eskom as chief engineer for the system operator before moving to the CSIR, and was also a member of the ministerial advisory council on energy.
“The existing renewables are helping, but more of them would help more,” he added.
To date renewable energy makes up 4.7% of South Africa’s electricity generation. Bischof-Niemz maintains that wind and solar power for South Africa today “are what coal was 100 years ago: an inexhaustible, low-cost, reliable energy source that needs to be exploited to help growing the economy”.
Brenda Martin, CEO of Sawea, said the extra 2000MW of renewable energy would have displaced R725m in Eskom’s diesel costs over a year.
“The extra 2000MW would also have helped by increasing Eskom’s reserve margin, but the biggest contribution would be to avoid some of the high diesel costs,” Martin said.
Eskom refused in 2016 to sign power purchase agreements with 27 renewable energy companies, which had been selected by government to build wind and solar power stations through a competitive bidding process, part of the Department of Energy’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers’ Procurement Programme (REIPPPP).
Although Eskom was legally obliged to sign the agreements, it said it would not do so because it had an over-capacity of power and the price of wind and solar was high - although the price of both had dropped significantly since the start of REIPPPP. It took a change in government and a new energy minister Jeff Radebe to get the agreements signed in April this year.
Radebe said then the new fleet of renewables would bring in R55.92bn of direct investment and over 60 000 jobs. Eskom, which began implementing rolling blackouts earlier this month, said on Thursday the probability of load-shedding remained low until Sunday January 13.
“This is as a result of the expected decrease in demand, as businesses and industries close down for the festive break,” Eskom said. However, if there were heavy rains over December to March, this could have an impact on the handling and feeding of coal to the boilers, which could have an impact on the electricity generation.
“While we do not anticipate load-shedding, we continue to warn customers that the system remains vulnerable, and any shift could increase the probability of load-shedding,” Eskom said. When it implemented stage two load-shedding earlier this month, Eskom said it was “a measure of last resort to protect the power system from total collapse or blackout”.
The utility said too many units at power stations were out of service because of breakdowns, both because some were working beyond their lifespans and because of the lack of proper maintenance in the past. Chairman of Eskom board Jabu Mabuza told media last week that Eskom’s problems of inadequate maintenance were not new.
“When they did get money they decided – rightly or wrongly – to spend the money on building a new plant,” Mabuza said. But construction of the 4800MW Medupi plant had run way over time and budget.
“And the plant which was suppose to retire had to be pulled out of mothballs,” Mabuza said. Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan said all the leave of all Eskom senior managers had been cancelled and they had been assigned to power stations “to see what is happening for qualitative and quantitative information”, and also to see “what is the level of skills on the ground”.
Lazard, a global financial advisory and asset management firm, said in its annual report that in some cases alternative energy costs had decreased to the point that they were now at - or below - the marginal cost of conventional generation. Lazard’s vice chairman George Bilicic said although diversified energy sources were still needed on a modern electricity grid, “we have reached an inflection point where, in some cases, it is more cost effective to build and operate new alternative energy projects than to maintain existing conventional generation plants”.