Energy expert warns of ‘national disaster’ if blackouts in South Africa aren’t addressed right now

Energy expert Chris Yelland warns that constant power cuts have become a national crisis for South Africa, and failure to address the country’s power woes will lead to a national disaster.

Yelland, of EE Business Intelligence, told John Maytham at CapeTalk radio station that the country needs a Marshall Plan to solve its ongoing load shedding woes, which have intensified in 2022. The energy expert called for the kind of plan instituted in the 1990s by Eskom, to electrify South Africa.

He said that if you harness the collective energies of the country instead of creating the current sense of helplessness, an end to load shedding can be achieved within two years.

“I do believe we are in a crisis and an emergency situation right now…and if we just allow this to continue, as we have been doing, it is going to change from a national emergency into a national disaster, and by that I mean we could be pushed into a partial or national blackout.”

Yelland said that the consequences of this would be ‘absolutely horrendous’. It would mean going without electricity for a week or two, without lights, mobile phones, petrol to fill up your car, without water, or being able to purchase food.

He said the consequences would see social unrest and looting on a scale that would make the incidents in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July 2021, “look like a Christmas picnic”.

The energy expert said that the probability for such a scenario is low, but the consequences are very high.

“If we do nothing…and just allow this situation to deteriorate, the probability of a partial or national blackout increases,” he said.

He called on the government to mobilise the nation, and set specific targets, including 10,000 MW of new power generation capacity, and 5,000 MW of battery energy storage within two years – this can be achieved, he said.

Grid under pressure

Eskom, the embattled electricity supplier has been facing severe constraints to the system since last week when several generation units tripped and others failed to return to service.

Consumers were given a small respite over the weekend when load shedding was suspended from Saturday afternoon but it was promptly reinstated on Monday and then again on Tuesday evening, until 22h00.

“Since [Monday] evening, a unit each at Arnot, Grootvlei and Matla power stations either tripped or were taken offline for repairs. At the same time two units were returned to service; one each at Kriel and Grootvlei power stations.

“The onset of winter has seen increased demand and this will lead to severe capacity constraints throughout this period, particularly during the evening and morning peaks. Unfortunately, this would generally require the implementation of load shedding during the evening peaks,” Eskom said.

The utility warned that higher levels of load shedding may be needed, going forward.

On Tuesday, capacity losses amounted to 15,762MW with an additional 3,049MW out on planned maintenance.

Bloomberg reported that South Africa is headed for a record year of power cuts if the rate of station breakdowns fails to improve, particularly at coal-fueled plants. Nationwide cuts will have occurred on seven of the 10 days in May so far, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Eskom was already on track to exceed the annual record for energy shed from controlled blackouts. There were 1,054 gigawatt hours cut through April versus 2,521 in the entire year earlier, itself a record, according to a report by the state-owned Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Beyond the operational issues, the utility has a massive debt pile and the distraction of an ongoing reorganization.

Phillip Dukashe, Eskom’s group executive for generation, quit on Monday after 26 years at the company. Eskom and the government are also working on plans to use $8.5 billion of funding pledged at the COP26 climate summit with the aim of moving South Africa away from coal.

Read: Ford aims to take South African mega-factory off Eskom’s grid

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Energy expert warns of ‘national disaster’ if blackouts in South Africa aren’t addressed right now