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Hello darkness, my old friend

What did South Africans use before candles? Electricity. 

In the beginning, God separated darkness and light and said they would be called night and day. Eskom created lasting darkness and called it load shedding.

These were just two of the jokes South Africans were telling this week as they battled through gridlock caused by out-of-order traffic lights.

Angry callers to local radio stations blame Eskom – this is  after a coal silo collapsed at the Majuba power station and plunged parts of the country into darkness. Eskom blames Johannesburg’s City Power, which says a faulty generator is to blame. The callers are cynical: Eskom is not to be trusted. 

The finger pointing follows a familiar routine. As with the  recent water shortages, national entities blame local entities, which blame finances.

Infrastructure backlog
Wolsey Barnard, acting director general of the energy department, says a R68?billion infrastructure backlog is to blame. Municipalities are not spending money on maintenance, so failures happen. If the money is not spent, blackouts will become a trend, he says.

Not that Eskom uses the term “blackout” when talking about its own problems. Since South Africa’s energy woes were exposed in the rolling blackouts of 2008, it has shifted terminology. Not having enough power to supply customers leads to “load shedding”.

The shedding comes from poor planning. Globally, electricity utilities try to have 15% extra capacity so they can turn boilers off and maintain their power stations. Eskom supplies more than 42 000 megawatts (MW) of power. It has a safety margin of about 2%. This is why people are asked to reduce electricity usage in the evenings – so consumption does not exceed demand.

Many of its coal power stations are nearing retirement. A station normally works for 50 years. The two new 4 800MW coal stations at Medupi and Kusile, the fourth and fifth biggest in the world, are four years behind schedule.

Energy analyst Chris Yelland says this has caused the grid to be stretched since 2008. Eskom has had to reduce the frequency of maintenance, which is why there are “unplanned outages” at stations. When most of Majuba’s 3 600MW generating capacity went offline, the country in effect lost 10% of its energy grid. Between now and 2019 – when both new stations are expected to be working at full capacity – the country will have to get used to using less electricity, he says.

This should have been the moment for renewable energy to shine. South Africa is consistently ranked as one of the top 10 destinations for investment in the sector. More than R100?billion has already been invested in renewables in the past two years. Although the coal stations are behind schedule, more than 560MW of power is being produced from renewable sources.

Insufficient supply
But Steve Lennon, Eskom’s group executive for sustainability, says renewables are producing below capacity at a time when they are most needed. Only 160MW of the 500MW solar capacity is supplying the grid, thanks to the continuing overcast conditions across most of the country. 

The latest blackouts have already seen South Africans forking out to become self-sufficient. Trudging through the light rain outside Makro in Edenvale this week, Allan Moore says with a tired smile: “I had to just bite the bullet and spend the money on a generator.” A R3 000 diesel generator, balanced precariously on a squeaking trolley, is an “inevitable purchase” after the fresh round of power cuts, he says. His fish and chips shop in a nearby industrial area has no backup power supply and he lost business on Sunday night when the lights went out. 

Moore’s step is a short-term one driven by necessity. But South Africans have been trying to get off the grid for several years. The United Nations Environment Programme says South Africa is the third-best place on Earth for generating electricity through solar power. 

Home-grown energy
A local nongovernmental organisation, Project 90×2030, estimates that a home could produce its own energy for about R110 000. A solar panel costs roughly R2 500 and generates 200 watts. An average home would need 20 of these. Batteries would cost about R40 000. The hidden cost would be in a R20 000 alternator, which is needed to switch direct current to alternating current so that solar energy can be used in the home. 

One serious obstacle: Eskom refuses to buy electricity from people who produce excess, he says.

In Germany, electricity is sold to the national grid. This has led to an explosion in homeowners installing solar panels on their roofs and wind turbines in their yards. The solar revolution saw this renewable source provide 51% of the country’s energy on a summer’s day this June.

The change has become acute since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 saw countries move away from nuclear power. The small German village of Feldheim, home to 150 people, has its 37 houses powered by 43 wind turbines. It is entirely energy self-sufficient. A biogas facility, powered by pig manure and unused corn, adds to the energy mix.

Paltry production
The renewable programme in South Africa has seen similar attempts, but a paltry 3?725MW is being tendered for – 8% of the grid.

The blackouts and the rising cost of electricity are particularly profound in the farming sector.

Gerhard Minnaar, a game farmer near the Limpopo border with Zimbabwe, talks about going off the grid while walking around his air-conditioned home. He says Eskom was “unreliable”. The main house is entirely run off solar panels, mounted on 5m-tall metal frames. This stops theft, he says.

Rows of heavy-duty batteries are stacked in a stuffy room next to the kitchen. The batteries, which have a 20-year lifespan, store enough energy during the day for the evenings. He gets excited as he talks through the mechanics of going off the grid. It cost him about R400 000 and he expects to pay that back in less than five years, through energy saved. 

His biggest smile is saved for his electric golf cart, powered by a solar panel on the roof and batteries under the seats. If he drives carefully, he can go anywhere on his farm.

“It takes work. But making your own power is not that complicated.”

He is now teaching his neighbours how to go off the grid. “Imagine what happens when we all start doing this?” 

For now, Eskom says further load shedding is unlikely. Repairs at Majuba are under way, but Lennon says that the whole fleet is being maintained during the summer months. Demand is traditionally lower then, so Eskom fixes power stations for the high winter demand. That is, if nothing else breaks.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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