The Electricity Question

by Damilola Daramola

Looking ahead to the World Cup in 2010, is South Africa ready to host the event? Some of the organizational hurdles facing South African organizers include security, health and the overall status of infrastructures within the country. One of the most important infrastructures in a country which is hosting a global sporting event is that of electricity. Has South Africa made all the improvements needed to provide adequate and stable power supply during the duration of the World Cup?

Eskom is the publicly-owned company that provides 95% of South Africa’s electricity. According to Eskom’s website, there are currently 19 power stations with a total capacity of 41.6GW (1GW = 1,000MW = 1,000,000Watts). Fifteen of these power stations are thermal i.e. energy is provided by steam or hot gases that are derived from nuclear, coal, oil or natural gas,while the remaining four stations are hydroelectric (dam-powered). These hydroelectric stations only provide 5% of the total capacity (41.6 GW) while the fossil fuel (coal, gas and oil) power stations provide 91% of Eskom’s capacity. These fossil fuel power stations are also the source of air pollutants. Notwithstanding, South Africa had been able to meet the expected electricity demand with a reserve capacity 16% as of 2006 (Ministry of Minerals and Energy (DME) Report).

In January 2008, problems began to arise as an increase in energy consumption (4.31%) and peak demand (4.90%) between 2006 and 2007 reduced the reserve capacity to 10% (DME Report 2008) and resulted in numerous blackouts. Although a 4.90% increase in demand may not seem like a high number, this is equivalent to 1706MW. Taking into consideration that the average Eskom power plant has a capacity of 2191MW, this increased demand is almost equivalent to the capacity of a power station.

A recent Reuter’s article (April 2009) shows that South Africa has been able to meet the increased energy demand, although this did not become possible until April 2008. How was the increased demand met? According to Eskom, three of its previously decommissioned power stations had to be returned to service. The Minister of Minerals and Energy, Buyelwa Sonjica, mentioned that without a healthy 17% – 20% reserve margin, South Africa would be at a risk of even more blackouts if there was a sudden increase in power demand (Reuters Article). This is a valid problem since South Africa’s economy continues to grow, leading to an increase in electricity demand. In the short term, it appears that the demand increase due to the World Cup will be met as there are still power stations being returned to service as previously mentioned. However, what will happen in the long term?

According to the aforementioned Reuter’s article, Eskom has pledged $37.19 billion to a five-year investment program. This begs the question, how should or will the money be spent? As mentioned earlier, most of Eskom’s power generation is fossil-fuel based and South Africa already generates 42% of Africa’s emissions. How can the surge in electricity demand be met while keeping in mind that greenhouse gas emission should be prioritized? A possibility is to diversify the current energy generation schemes in place that do not currently emit greenhouse gases i.e. nuclear (Koeberg power stations) and hydroelectric (Gariep and Vanderkloof power stations). Koeberg has been in operation since 1984 and Eskom admits that this is also its most reliable power station. With a time-span of 9 years from construction to operation, this appears to be a feasible option for Eskom to pursue. It should not be disregarded that the construction of another nuclear power station will raise eyebrows as nuclear power also comes with potential adverse consequences – case in point the Chernobyl accident. In addition, security is also an issue as nuclear proliferation is a valid concern. It is important that some of Eskom’s pledged resources should also go towards educating the public about the safety issues with regards to nuclear plants.

Other suggestions in improving energy production include the use of solar and wind energy. However, compared to technologies that are in place, the cost of implementing newer technologies will be costly.

African countries can learn from the problems and proposed solutions experienced by South Africa especially Eskom in power production. Problems start with generation of power supply, distribution of said power supply, mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, ensuring that power generation meets economic growth and finally the ability to have an adequate reserve margin for moments of increased demand. Some countries are still struggling with the first and second phase of power supply. Nigeria for instance is yet to experience a consistent power supply since 1980 as mentioned in The Nation article from July 2009. As at May 2008, power supply capacity stood at 3GW although demand stood at 20GW according to Ransom Owan – the head of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (Yahoo Finance 2008). In addition, due to the fact that electricity is essential for home needs such as powering electrical appliances, inconsistent power supply has also placed strains on Nigerian manufacturing industries. This excerpt from a bnet today article, details the amounts that businesses spend on fuel for generators alone. How can these businesses be expected to keep employees happy and still produce at a profit when so much money is being spent on an amenity that should be basic?

Overall, it appears that South Africa has been able to answer the electricity question with regards to its proposed solutions. The question remains: will the changes implemented go farther than the World Cup and extend to its citizens? In addition, what can other countries take from the changes that South Africa has made?

Damilola Daramola is a Post-doctoral Research Associate at the Center for Electrochemical Engineering at Ohio University, USA, where he conducts research on hydrogen production from wastes like ammonia and urea. He received his Doctoral degree in Chemical Engineering from Ohio University and frequently writes on personal growth and science.

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3 Responses to The Electricity Question

  1. Last time I checked ESKOM was number seven in the world as an electricity supplying corporation. South Africa can stand anything the problem is the technical-know in the management and board of directors. How the money is spent depends on the driver…as long as they put the electrification projects in the right hands then we do not have to worry. The problem not just South Africa in Africa we always have people who have no idea of what they are doing running important entities. I can only hope that the world cup will allow our leaders to learn so that changes implemented go beyond 2010 and citizens of the continent benefit instead of outsiders. Just like budweiser being the sponsor of the world cup meaning we will be quenching our thirst with a bud while our Castle and Tusker Brands being sidelined…
    If you think about it a country like Nigeria should not be struggling at all with all the technical-know how in place. Again we have the wrong people at the forefront in all phases.

  2. I agree about people not understanding the power that they wield. When Yar'adua came into power, he placed an ultimatum of 18 months to increase Nigeria's capacity to 6MW. The committee after a month long review proposed that $2.7bn will be needed to come up with that sort of capacity (http://www.africa-energy.com/html/Public/samples/power_sample_4.html). At this point in time, there is no progress still being made.
    It is my hope that as issues like this continue to be highlighted and brought to the forefront, people will begin to take up the mantle of leadership. It is highly unpatriotic to have the ability and not transform this ability to action

  3. Our leaders are not looking beyond their tenure…They are trying to keep their friends happy as they support them during elections. Progress is made when people place priorities where is due. In an Operating System class I learned about scheduling and some of the mechanisms used prioritize jobs or request coming in. Transformation will come as soon as we get the courage to face our leaders and say change is inevitable. Most of our leaders or politicians are not honest to us they make promises and when they get there they don't come back to give us feedback. Even if the environment is not workable all they care about is the power now and the wealth they are building for their generations to come. With Bokamoso Leadership Forum the continent is about to experience a sweeping tide…

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