But none are likely to prevent potentially crippling future power
crunches in Africa's biggest economy unless a decision is made soon
on when and how to add capacity to the grid.
South Africa's failure to invest in new power plants nearly two
decades ago meant it paid dearly in 2008 when the grid nearly
collapsed, leading to power cuts that cost the economy billions of
rand in lost output and dented investor confidence.
State-owned power utility Eskom is scrambling to finish new power
plants, including Medupi and Kusile, massive coal-fired outfits with
a combined capacity of about 9,500 megawatts (MW).
But they are still several years away from completion, and in the
interim Eskom will be battling to keep the lights on, nursing its
fleet of ageing generating units and hoping breakdowns do not reduce
reserve margins to critical levels.
The utility has declared four power "emergencies" since November and
earlier this month imposed rolling blackouts, known locally as "load
shedding", for the first time in six years.
Although they lasted only a day, the blackouts came at a bad time
for President Jacob Zuma and his governing African National Congress
two months before a national election. The ANC is expected to win
but its majority is likely to be reduced by public anger over
corruption scandals and deficient delivery of public services in
many poor black townships.
The worst is not over, says Eskom, which provides 95 percent of
South Africa's electricity and has a total generation capacity of
42,000 MW. This is slightly less than Turkey but almost 10 times
more than Nigeria, sub-saharan Africa's second biggest economy and
top oil producer.
Although South Africa's infrastructure is generally the envy of
Africa, at the moment nearly a quarter of its power generation
capacity is out of action, mainly for maintenance.
The first power from Medupi, about 800 MW, is expected in the second
half of this year. Eskom admits this will not prevent more blackouts
should the system come under further strain.
Any event leading to a loss of more than 1,500 MW could have a
significant impact on the grid, Eskom said.
"TEN YEARS TO FIX"
Eskom Chief Executive Brian Dames said South Africa was still
feeling the repercussions of the ANC government's decision not to
build new plants when asked by the utility to do so in 1998.
Construction of Medupi only started in 2007 and has been plagued by
delays related to design flaws and labor unrest.
"It will take 10 years to fix the 1998 problem," said Dames, who
steps down at the end of this month.
In its 20-year Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), running up to 2030,
the government says coal, nuclear, hydro, shale gas and renewable
energy are all options to beef up power supply.
And after the 2008 debacle, the government realizes it could pay a
heavy price if it does not decide in time on the next phase of power
construction when Medupi and Kusile are complete.
"We are working around the clock to arrive at decisions quickly,"
Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba said.
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The IRP is revised every two years, the latest revision being last
year. Cabinet has yet to approve the updated plan which proposes a
delay in construction of more nuclear power plants and a focus
instead on coal, hydro and gas.
Eskom's problems are compounded by increasing maintenance needs at
its decades-old plants, and unplanned outages.
It also faces challenges relating to the quality of coal fed into
its power stations. The recent blackouts were imposed after
torrential rain soaked coal stockpiles and the coal could not be fed
properly into the system.
"I don't think there is nearly enough attention being given to the
supply of coal for Eskom. That's an area government needs to do more
work on," said Mike Rossouw, chairman of the Energy Intensive Users
Group, which represents heavy power users such as mines and
Eskom's coal stockpiles are mostly kept in the open, in part because
of the high cost of storage, and so are prone to damage from heavy
rain. Storage bunkers are available but not enough to protect all
the coal and the problem is compounded by most of Eskom's supply
coming from exposed open-pit mines.
DIVERSIFY THE ENERGY MIX
Eskom generates most of its electricity from coal-fired plants but
also has one nuclear plant, gas turbines, hydro-electric and wind
facilities. Coal is likely to remain the main feed stock for
base-load power, given that South Africa is a major producer and
exporter of coal.
To diversify its energy sources and reduce its reliance on coal
plants, South Africa started three years ago to procure renewable
power from independent producers.
To date, the government has signed off on 64 renewable energy
projects with a combined capacity of 3,850 MW. Eskom said 19
projects had been connected to the grid to date.
Analysts say more needs to be done to allow private players in — and
not just for renewable energy, which is struggling to produce power
at rates Eskom deems competitive with coal.
"The industry is by far not deregulated enough. We need to have more
participants in base-load generation in South Africa," said Cornelis
van der Waal, an energy analyst at consultancy Frost & Sullivan.
"Whether that base load is coal, nuclear, gas or hydro, let's leave
that to the industry to decide who can supply the most reliable
electricity at the best rate."
(Reporting by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo;
editing by Ed Cropley, Pascal Fletcher and Giles Elgood)
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