Why we need more Eskom blackouts

A report out this week recommends that Eskom might be best served if it was left to complete all the necessary maintenance, even if it means more blackouts.

The South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) released a report titled “The rise and fall of Eskom”, which provides immediate remedies for South Africa’s electricity crisis.

The IRR said that a permanent solution to the crisis is to build sufficient power stations to cope with the country’s electricity demand.

However, it will take years for Medupi and Kusile to meet present demand – let alone future demand.

This raises the question: Is there anything that can be done in the interim to alleviate the problem?

The author of the report, Andrew Kenny, who is an engineer and energy expert, recommends the following quick fixes for Eskom:

  • Eskom must do all the necessary maintenance

At the moment Eskom has a policy of trying to ‘keep the lights on’, which means avoiding maintenance on the power stations.

It would be better if Eskom did the necessary maintenance, which would mean more blackouts, and scheduled the blackouts so that consumers could plan for them.

It might even make financial sense for Eskom not to run its gas turbines, and accept even more blackouts.

Key industrial customers, such as mines and smelters, should then be favoured over households and businesses that are better able to cope with blackouts.

  • Enable private power suppliers

All bureaucratic, regulatory, and political obstacles against private power suppliers selling electricity into the grid should be removed.

  • Dividing South Africa into two time zones

Since the time of peak demand in South Africa and elsewhere is at supper time, about 19h00, it has been suggested that the country should be divided into two time zones, an hour apart.

Supper time in the western half would be an hour after that in the eastern half, reducing the national peak demand. This should be investigated.

  • Using power ships

Some African countries, notably Ghana, get electricity from ‘power ships’, which are essentially floating power stations. This could be a possibility for Durban, East London, and other coastal cities.

However, such electricity would be powered by oil or gas, which would determine whether its price was economic for South Africa.

  • Reduce electricity demand

All measures to reduce electricity demand or shift from electricity to other sources of energy would help.

Householders using gas rather than electricity for cooking at breakfast and supper time would help greatly. The obstacle to this now is that gas is more expensive than electricity.

  • Use ‘smart meters’ and charge by ‘time of use’

The problem with household electricity pricing is that municipalities buy electricity from Eskom at ‘time of use’ (TOU) tariffs. At peak times they have to pay far more than at off-peak times.

However, they sell it to householders at flat tariffs. The municipalities make money by selling electricity off-peak and lose it by selling electricity on-peak.

The solution would be to have ‘smart meters’ in each household and to charge the householder by ‘time of use’.

Long term solutions for Eskom

The best way forward is to keep Eskom as a state-owned generator, while allowing any company to compete against it for the generation and sale of electricity – provided this competition is strictly on a commercial basis and is not skewed by subsidies.

  • Eskom must be depoliticised

Eskom must be depoliticised. It should resume its old function: to provide sufficient, reliable electricity and to cover its costs.

It should be forbidden from pursuing political, social, or racial ambitions. It must appoint its engineers and other technical staff entirely on merit.

Its financial managers must be forced to accept that Eskom’s purpose is to provide a service and not to make a profit. They must also accept that it is happy with a low rate of return (3% real or less) and a long payback time.

They must borrow to fund the new stations, with repayment scheduled to take place over a period of some 40 years, and they must manage the debt responsibly.

  • Eskom’s transmission system must be taken from it

Eskom’s transmission system must be taken from it and given to an independent operator. All large-scale generators must be entitled to use the transmission system in return for a reasonable fee, based solely on technical and commercial considerations.

  • Allow people to sell electricity to the grid

Households which generate small amounts of solar power should be allowed to sell their electricity to the national grid.

  • Electricity distribution should be taken away from municipalities

Electricity distribution should be taken away from municipalities and given to private electrical engineering companies. These will have to compete with one another in supplying final customers, which will help keep their prices down and their efficiency up.

  • Select good energy sources for future electricity generation

Energy sources must be chosen on scientific and commercial grounds, so as to serve the best interests of mankind and the environment.

For base-load electricity, there are two present options and two possible options in the future. The present options are coal and nuclear, of which nuclear is the better.

The future options are gas (from the Karoo or Mozambique) and hydroelectricity imported from Central Africa.

For peaking power, the options are gas turbines (which have low capital costs and high operating costs) and pumped storage (high capital costs, low operating costs).

Concentrated solar power (CSP), with storage, might be a third option.

At present, electricity generation is beset with unnecessary problems. But sensible solutions lie readily at hand if the State is willing to grasp them.

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Why we need more Eskom blackouts