No shortcuts for Energy Crisis


Speaking ahead of the conference at the Cape Town International Conference Centre from 15 – 17 July, Alwyn Smith, spokesperson of the South African Alternative Energy Association (SAAEA), said, “We have left it too late. There are few, if any, solutions that could be put in place to turn the situation around in the short term.

“To be fair, this is not just the fault of Eskom. Eskom has been warning for years that this would happen unless more budget was allocated for maintenance,” says Smith. In the longer term, he says, energy sources such as nuclear, solar and wind power have the potential to deliver cost-effective power on a large scale.

But currently, independent power producers and alternative energy plants deliver too little total capacity to significantly improve the power situation. A nuclear reactor that could generate a significant amount of power could take nearly a decade to build. The region has an abundance of gas which could cost-effectively run turbines, he says, but this too would take time to implement. “There is no quick fix. The best we can do right now is to bite the bullet and try to catch up on overdue maintenance on our generators.”

However, he believes that widespread ‘net metering’ could alleviate the load shedding headaches facing businesses and citizens, and could go some way towards easing pressure on the national grid. Net metering allows residential customers and businesses to install solar panels at their premises and store excess power within the grid, in return for ‘power credits’ when needed. South Africa has been slow to move on creating an environment that allows for widespread net metering, says Smith. He speculates that this is partly due to municipalities’ reluctance to give up the profits they make on reselling Eskom power.

“Net metering would relieve plenty of the current issues, but now the question is – how to implement it quickly? This is not the sort of thing you can implement overnight. You need the right policies and systems in place,” says Smith. Smith foresees residents and businesses taking the initiative to go off the grid as the impact of load shedding is felt. However, while solar panels are within reach of ordinary citizens, the challenge lies in storing the solar power. “Storage – the batteries – is very costly. And currently, there are no systems and framework in place for putting excess power back into the grid.”

He says the NERSA call for input on a regulatory framework on small-scale renewable embedded generation is a step in the right direction. “With the right framework in place, net metering could be widely adopted quite quickly, and it wouldn’t cost the government a cent. And an independent 50 MW solar farm could be put in place in as little as eight or nine months,” he points out.

Nigel Blackaby, director of global power conferences and chair of the POWER-GEN Africa conference, agrees. “We have seen in Europe how net metering has encouraged significant domestic solar rooftop generation, so the potential for this to make an impact in the much sunnier climes of South Africa is great.”

IPPs keen to step in to help mitigate power crisis

Meanwhile, South Africa’s Independent Power Producers (IPPs) have rolled up their sleeves and are standing by to work with all stakeholders on measures to help alleviate the current power crisis, says the chairperson of the South African Independent Power Producers’ Association (SAIPPA), Sisa Njikelana.

Speaking ahead of the conferences, Njikelana says: “I sense a lot of keenness among South Africa’s IPPs to bring their innovations to the table, and to work with Eskom, municipalities and other stakeholders in mitigating the power challenges.”

The sense of urgency is driven by the deepening crisis and its impact on the economy, he says. “Nobody gloats on the impact load shedding is having on the economy, especially at a time when economic growth has been so low,” he says.

He confirms SAIPPA is conscious of the fact that the government has publicly embraced co-generation, and is encouraged by NERSA’s work to develop the Regulatory Framework on Small-Scale Renewable Embedded Generation and the Guidelines on the Electricity Reseller Tariffs.

However, IPPs would like more opportunities to be availed faster, he says. “IPPs are quite agile and given their proven ability to start generating power in a relatively short time, co-generation initiatives could take 12 – 18 months to build.

“There is a level of impatience among IPPs for the government to move a little faster in addressing constraints and creating an environment in which they can be engaged optimally. IPPs may be small in number but they could make a really meaningful contribution,” he says. Nigel Blackaby agrees.

“Power markets in other parts of the world have greatly benefitted by the introduction of IPPs and the efficiencies and additional capacity they deliver, but private developers will first need a suitable framework of policies and regulation.”

Njikelana says the immediate capacity IPPs have is an opportunity to generate 800 MW through cogeneration and about 6 600 MW through other technologies in the short term. Beyond that is difficult to quantify.

Furthermore co-generation and small-scale generation by households and business, as well as raising awareness on energy efficiency will certainly contribute to adding power generation capacity to the national grid. Awareness is important, he says, since generating more power is not the only measure that will mitigate the power crisis. “The focus has been on generating more power, but greater energy efficiency is equally important in improving the situation.”

 Njikelana points out that a significant reduction in power consumption could be achieved if everyone – particularly industrial consumers – made an effort to become more energy efficient. “We’ve just been talking about adding capacity, but energy efficiency is also critical. This entails not only the reduction of consumption. It needs to be far broader, where people optimise the utilisation of existing resources.”

Sue McDermott

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Issue 39