Jolt the city into self-reliance

Johannesburg mayor Parks Tau has underplayed – to the point of it escaping many residents’ notice – the greatest achievement of his city and administration: an electricity plan that is already cushioning the city from load-shedding, and that will have a significant positive economic impact over the next few years.

In the near future, Tau said on Wednesday, Johannesburg should be able to reduce, for short periods of time, its dependence on Eskom by up to 25%, using a combination of ripple control (to switch off geysers), power from household solar panels and, chiefly, electricity bought from the Kelvin power station.

Kelvin, near OR Tambo International Airport, is one of only a handful of power stations not owned by Eskom and has a contract to supply Johannesburg until 2021.

The city, Tau said, was “engaging with the private sector to secure investment” that would triple its output, restoring it to the full 600 megawatts it was rated for when it was built nearly 60 years ago.

The city initially bought electricity from Kelvin under a long-term agreement and sold it on to Eskom. But, in recent months, it has been using the station’s output, leaving lights burning in Johannesburg that would otherwise have been out when the rest of the country was subjected to stage-one load shedding.

Throughout the city, residents this week cited electricity outages as a primary concern, not only because of the inconvenience but also because of the effect on their ability to make a living.

Roadside vendors said they had to pack up their goods before sunset because it was unsafe. Taxi drivers spoke of income lost when they sat in traffic snarl-ups when the traffic lights were out. Medium-sized businesses complained their operations came to a halt whereas their large competitors could afford to run generators.

They blamed Eskom and the national government for the outages, but they were happy to ascribe the lack of deliverance to the city government.

“If I can sell for an hour more because there are lights, my family has more food to eat,” a downtown vendor, Josias Tobane, said.

But the competitive advantages of reducing blackouts notwithstanding, energy experts were disappointed that Tau and his administration were not talking about going much further down the path to energy independence. “The City of Johannesburg should be talking about its own, utility-scale renewables plants,” said Chris Yelland. “We should have solar, even wind [plants], being built by the city.”

Solar power plants are cropping up in the Northern Cape, the best location in the country for such stations because of its weather.

But the long distances that electricity had to be transmitted in effect cancelled out the weather benefits, Yelland said. “When you transmit that far, the losses are big. You negate what you win from the higher solar radiation,” he said.

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Phillip De Wet
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