IN SOUTH Africa, load shedding reached stage 6 at the weekend. It is the culmination of a power crisis that has escalated over the years, resulting in continuous increases in the price of electricity and growing pressure on the cost of living. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to an energy crisis in Europe too. The price of gas continues to spike. Controlled blackouts similar to load shedding in South Africa are expected in some countries. In recent weeks, Europeans from a number of countries have taken to the streets in protest over how this has affected their survival, particularly as winter is a few months away. Latoya Newman spoke to Professor Innocent Davidson about the growing energy crisis. Davidson is a full professor and chair at the Department of Electrical Power Engineering at DUT, and the research leader at the Centre of Excellence in Smart Grids. He has more than 30 years experience in the electricity sector and research in the field. Davidson previously served as the director of research at the Eskom Centre of Excellence in High Voltage Direct Current Engineering at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and as a coordinator at the Eskom Power Plant Engineering Institute, HVDC Specialisation Centre.
Q: How did South Africa get to a point where, 15 years and counting, we are still in a power crisis?
A: Historically, Eskom and South Africa had a remarkably high quality of electricity supply, security of supply, and reliability, as well as the lowest cost of electricity in the world at some point in the past. However, the realities of extending electricity supply after the 1994 historical elections, to all citizens and residents, population growth, and economic expansion, placed a huge demand on existing electricity infrastructure. Given the urgent social and economic needs of our people, the government aggressively focused on catering to these social and welfare needs, and deferred making investments in new electricity generation, transmission, and distribution systems, all of which have large lead times from concept to implementation. For example, it will take 5 to 8 years from project approval to commission a new thermal power plant, such as coal or nuclear powered. This omission led to the spinning reserve capacity of Eskom being depleted. Ageing infrastructure, lack of maintenance of existing infrastructure, and technical skill capacitation, all added up to create the problems we have today with loadshedding. You don’t manage a technical company like Eskom using nonhighgrade technical experts. This past year has seen a combination of several factors: delayed maintenance of power assets; and decommissioning of ageing plants, which have now reached their end of life. We also witnessed the unprecedented vandalisation and sabotage of electricity infrastructure, and delays in the completion of new power generation projects, due to technical glitches and weak project management. Meanwhile, population growth and demand for energy continue to rise, hence electricity demand sometimes exceeded available generation supply, leading to load shedding.
Q: Load shedding in South Africa started in 2007. Is there a chance of the country getting a grip on energy needs and finding lasting solutions?
A: Without understanding the electricity industry, it will be comparing apples with potatoes. The root cause of the crisis which began in 2007 was not addressed, hence the disease only spread. Failure to listen to power systems engineers and experts; failure to invest in new generation capacity; a culture of nonpayment for services; loss of skilled personnel, emigration of skilled technical workers; poor governance driven by BEE or economic transformation as well as unbridled corruption, all contributed to the deteriorating situation. South Africa will prevail and come through this because load shedding is now high on the agenda of the government, and all South Africans. We no longer take the availability of inexpensive electricity for granted. The issue is not when we can eliminate load shedding, but how well do we implement balanced policies with a long-term view for stability. If the right policies and actions are taken, we can see a strip decline, provided such acts as criminality, and vandalisation of public electricity infrastructure are also arrested. The citizenry has a role to play in this regard.
Q: Can South Africa’s energy crisis be compared to Europe?
A: The situation abroad is mixed, but bear in mind, that whenever you rely on imports of your power equipment, machinery, or components, you will be compromised, unlike when you have local production and manufacturing capacity for these hardware components. Nevertheless, we have seen the situation in Europe shocking in view of the war in Ukraine. Nobody plans for or wishes to see a war. In the war between Russia and Ukraine, energy resource supplies were disrupted. But this is not new. In the 1973 Arab oil embargo, which was not even a war, but a fallout of politics, oil prices spiked. This experience calls for better energy security. For South Africa, the critical importance of having a supply of energy bearing materials cannot be over-emphasised, which in our case is coal. The Professor Innocent Davidson last century has demonstrated that every facet of human development is woven around a sound and stable energy supply regime. Economists generally agree that there are five essential pillars for economic success in the 21st century, namely:
Highly educated and sophisticated population.
Highly developed technology
Rich modern and highly productive agricultural base.
A rich base of energy-bearing materials.
An abundant supply of non-energy bearing materials.
South Africa, like any other country, can measure itself against these five indices and establish where we are.
Q: What are your thoughts on the energy crisis in Europe?
A: It is likely going to get worse as Russia threatens to use gas supplies as a weapon of war. That crisis could make our load shedding problems in SA look little. Europe needs energy supplies for household heating in winter. The situation in Europe could easily exceed South Africa’s challenges. Boosting intra-African trade can lighten the pressure of these high energy prices. Angola and Nigeria are major oil producers in Africa, but we import our oil from further afield. Weaning South Africa from carbon products radically is a weak and fallible strategy, which Europe has now learned. Injecting renewable energy sources, and substitution of primary energy resources is critical, but it is wishful thinking and poor planning to shut out investments in coal-based generation, which South Africa has in abundance. It only benefits some segments of the economy, to the detriment of the overall populace. It should be a balancing act.
Q: Should Europe already be or at least thinking of planning for a worse-case scenario like load shedding, in order to help them cope?
A: Absolutely. But there are ways to mitigate and minimise this adverse impact.
Q: Can Europe learn from us?
A: Yes, indeed. Europe should have a good energy mix, incorporating both fossil-fuel and renewable energy resources. Europe made a strategic error in overemphasising the use of intermittent renewable sources, for marketing and export of technological products; without acknowledging the limitations of even solar-PV and wind generation. While we must continue to reduce massive dependence on coal-based generation, we should be ensuring a good generation mix: fossil fuels, nuclear power, hydro hydro-pumped storage, solar-PV, wind and so forth. We need all of them.
Q: Should South Africans aim to get off the grid to better survive?
A: To get off the grid would be a grave mistake. Simply reduce your electricity use and bill. Grid electricity remains the highest quality of electricity, and superior to most other forms, in terms of power quality. It’s like water. You have bottled water of high quality; you have seawater for navigation; rainwater, pond water, water in swimming pools, and so forth. You don’t ask humans and even animals to drink seawater or pond water. However, you can use this lower-quality of water for agriculture. So, all water is useful, but the highest quality is for human consumption. Grid power is required for industrial production in manufacturing, due to the voltage frequency needs of these loads. Most residential and household loads can survive by substituting rooftop solar-PV generation. Active solar can be used for hot water geysers while reducing demand on the grid. If you include BESS battery energy storage system, you can mitigate blackouts, but at a cost. Other measures include: legislating only energy-efficient loads Energy-starrated appliances , which can reduce domestic loads by over 60%. Eliminate tungsten bulbs and similar inefficient loads. The idea of going off-grid is not without its risks. Inverters very often can fail. Solar panels can be damaged or run the-it working life. Storage batteries still have a short lifespan of three to eight years. The issue is the inconvenience of unplanned or planned load shedding. Reducing demand for electricity and energy substitution. On the environment, the focus should not be on de-carbonization only, but on other measures: reforestation, carbon sequestration; energy management, energy efficiency; and use of inverter-based micro-grid in areas unserved by the grid.
Q: Should the government help South Africans get off the grid?
A: The government should not be helping people get off the grid. The grid has great economies of scale that individual self-generation schemes cannot match. The evolution of the power grid began with such disparate individualistic systems. You may have your own driveway, but you cannot have your own roads and highways. Shared infrastructure is always superior. However, the government can de-more to reduce the rate of increase of tariffs by promoting these corrective measures, and subsidising energy-efficient alternatives; providing low to zero-interest loans to enable people to invest in rooftop solar-PV that helps to reduce their grid demand; not necessarily to become prosumers who want to export to the grid per se.
Q: What are low-cost ways to help us better cope with the energy crisis?
A: Going off-grid has its own social problems the haves and the have-nots. Rather adopting this holistic measure to support the grid infrastructure is key. II we let down and collapse power, we will soon have to produce our own water, purify our water and so forth. The power grid is supreme, but we must have alternative and supporting infrastructure to reduce residential load demand on the grid; invest in the new generation, transmission, and distribution infrastructure; promote green energy, while not putting our economy at risk with negative portrayal of coal-generation, where we have superior technical skills. Last, and extremely important, we have another huge problem of high unemployment. Government should ensure all new renewable energy projects are extensively locally sourced. Foreign companies should be compelled to establish local manufacturing plants and hire local labour as well. Inverters, solar panels, and storage batteries are all components that can be fully manufactured locally. The materials are all here. We simply need technological capacitation, which means South Africa should be attracting skilled persons who can add value to the economy, and not chasing quality skills away with outdated immigration policies. Unregulated imports might only drive unemployment higher and increase the social disparity.
Pictured: Professor Innocent Davidson.
Latoya Newman/The Post newspaper