IN VIEW of the numerous, diverse opinions currently being expressed on the electricity situation in SA, especially with regard to the shortage in generating capacity, it is important to provide some perspective on how this shortage came about.
The current shortage is not due to apartheid, maintenance, higher than expected economic growth or the electrification of homes. It is also not due to the shortage of money that Eskom currently has.
By the middle of the 1980s SA had substantial excess generating capacity for a variety of reasons. Eskom then embarked on a programme of closing some of its old power stations, while it mothballed others. It then also closed the department that was responsible for the building of power stations.
At the end of 1998 the government published a white paper on energy policy. The intention was to restructure the generation as well as the distribution of electricity in SA. Eskom was then prohibited from building any power stations. Future power stations were to be built by private investors. This never happened. One of the many reasons was that the price of electricity was not attractive enough for private investors to enter the electricity market in SA.
Despite the fact that Eskom was not allowed to build power stations, it continued to develop long-term electricity demand forecasts and concomitant generation expansion plans. These forecasts were based on expected long-term economic growth for the country, and also catered for the electrification of houses. Plans based on the moderate long-term Eskom forecast done in 1997-98 had at that stage already indicated that the country would need new generating capacity by 2007.
Item 7.1 of the white paper on energy policy states the following: “Although growth in electricity demand is only projected to exceed generation capacity by approximately the year 2007, long capacity-expansion lead times require strategies to be in place in the mid-term, in order to meet the needs of the growing economy.”
In the meantime, municipal power stations such as those in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth were closed because they were old and Eskom had excess capacity at the time.
Excess generating capacity gradually decreased as the economy kept growing. In October 2004, the government decided to lift the decree prohibiting Eskom from building power stations. At that stage Eskom had to establish a whole new department to handle the building of power stations from scratch — some 15 years after it had closed its previous department, losing many expert employees. That could not happen overnight as such expertise is not readily available.
The decision that Eskom could proceed with the building of new power stations therefore came about seven years too late and the establishment of the new power station building department added another year. It was thus a backlog of about eight years. This is the crux of the whole issue of the power shortage and not maintenance or any of the other problems mentioned above.
Excess generating capacity, for all practical purposes, came to an end after about 20 years by 2007. The issue was discussed extensively in the media in 2007 and 2008 and an independent investigation into Eskom’s plans was also done for the government. The government apologised when former president Thabo Mbeki admitted that Eskom was right and the government was wrong.
Since the lifting of the prohibition on the building of power stations, Eskom managed to return three of its mothballed power stations to service. This brought some temporary relief. It also commissioned some 2,000MW of a gas turbine generating plant to handle peak demands.
It is also well-known that virtually all of Eskom’s power stations are old and will be coming to the end of their lives from about 2025. This is only 10 years from now. The existing power stations of Tshwane Metro and the Kelvin power station in Johannesburg are even older than the Eskom power stations and their capacity is small with a very low availability factor. New generating capacity therefore also has to provide for the replacement of these old power stations over and above what a growing economy will demand.
Eskom can therefore not be blamed for load-shedding, as it is not its fault that there is currently not enough generating capacity. The insufficient generating capacity with no reserve margin places huge pressure on Eskom. It cannot take generating units out of the system to conduct proper maintenance — the demand for electricity is far too high. Should the system collapse, the country may experience a disaster as it may take weeks to restore power.
SA will therefore simply have to live with an insufficient supply of electricity for a long time to come. This shortage has and will continue to limit economic growth with, inter alia, the associated increase of unemployment.
To eliminate this huge backlog will take years and will cost a lot. There is no quick fix. It takes years to build a power station and the construction of renewable plants also takes time and what is being built is relatively small in capacity. Shortage of finance can also become an issue, as there is a limit to the amount of money that SA can borrow.
The Department of Energy is responsible for the planning of electricity supply in the country. Wise and strategic planning with swift implementation of plans is needed to get the country out of trouble. Furthermore, monitoring of progress and strong corrective action will be imperative to ensure that end dates are met.
If SA strives for an average annual economic growth rate of only 5% a year, average annual growth in generating capacity of about 3% will be required. It should also be kept in mind that whatever power is generated has to be distributed by Eskom’s and municipal networks. These networks have to be sufficiently strengthened and expanded to deliver uninterrupted power to the consumer.
• Prinsloo was involved in the forecasting of long-term electricity demand at Eskom from 1987-2007.