/ 2 July 2023

Ramokgopa: We cannot procrastinate on transmission

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Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa

Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa has warned that policymakers cannot continue to stall when it comes to developing South Africa’s transmission network.

During a Sunday briefing on the progress regarding the implementation of the Energy Action Plan, Ramokgopa said policymakers risk repeating the mistakes of the past by ignoring vulnerabilities to the country’s transmission network. 

The government ignored early warnings that South Africa’s economic growth would cause demand to outstrip generation capacity, a fact which eventually precipitated the 15-year load-shedding crisis.

“We kicked the can down the road as policymakers and we are sitting with this problem …. We shouldn’t make the same mistake on transmission, thinking that we will resolve transmission sometime in the future. Transmission must be resolved today,” Ramokgopa said on Sunday.

Eskom has done good work on creating a transmission development plan, the minister noted. However, funding constraints have delayed efforts to bring the transmission system into compliance — a fact that has been further complicated by the condition attached to the R254 billion bailout preventing Eskom from borrowing.

This dilemma, Ramokgopa said, required innovative solutions. 

Solutions currently on the table require tapping into private-sector liquidity, not relinquishing state ownership of the grid, and ensuring that Eskom’s systems’ manager is solely responsible for the management of the grid. These are outlined in a National Energy Crisis Committee report, which Ramokgopa described as “revolutionary”.

“We are beginning to state the case that you can’t kick the can down the road. You are going to sit with a transmission problem,” Ramokgopa added.

“I did say that the biggest risk to any remote possibility of a grid collapse is not on your generation side. It is on your transmission side …. We need to address that, with renewables coming on board.”

Last week, the minister warned that grid constraints undermine the government’s ability to bring on new capacity from renewables, which he emphasised again this week,

“You really don’t have significant grid capacity,” the minister said this Sunday. “It is exhausted in the Northern Cape. It is about to be exhausted in the Western Cape. It is not sufficient in the Eastern Cape to accommodate the amount of energy that we want to introduce.”

Notwithstanding the country’s transmission dilemma, Ramokgopa’s briefing suggested that South Africa’s crisis-hit energy system was recovering.

Earlier this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed Ramokgopa, giving him the primary goal of driving the government’s efforts to significantly reduce “the severity and frequency of load shedding as a matter of urgency”. Key to this endeavour is improving energy generation so that capacity is better able to meet the demands of a growing economy. 

In the last week, available capacity improved, Ramokgopa said, from 28 664 megawatts to 29 913 megawatts — well above the 26 500 megawatts of capacity reported in May when Eskom warned of considerable winter shortfalls. At the time, the utility estimated that daily demand would peak at 33 000 megawatts during the winter months. In Eskom’s worst case scenario, demand would be about 34 000 megawatts.

It is encouraging, the electricity minister added, that Eskom has begun to maintain improvements in capacity, which has given the utility a larger buffer to implement planned outages and conduct maintenance.

“And this is important, because when we get out of this challenge, I will be able to say with the highest degree of confidence that load-shedding is behind us. Because of the amount of work and effort we would have exerted in ensuring that we stick to philosophy maintenance. Planned maintenance has been so meticulous that we are confident about the reliability of these units as we put them back onto the grid.”

Ramokgopa said there is still room to improve load losses – capacity that is lost due to myriad factors. Over the past week, the amount of capacity lost fell from 16 468 megawatts to 13681 megawatts. “I am not suggesting that this will not deteriorate, but what we are seeing is a downward trend. For me that is important, an appreciation of the trend over a period of time.”

Peak demand has also been lower than previously estimated. During the past week, the highest demand was recorded on 28 June at 31 540 megawatts.

Together, these factors have converged to de-escalate load-shedding, Ramokgopa said. “Generation is beginning to keep up with demand. And that is why we are beginning to see that during certain periods of the day — significant periods of the day, I may add, about two thirds of the day — we are not having load-shedding, because we are beginning to balance that,” he added.

“But what is important is that we need to ensure that generation far exceeds demand … and we are able to build a buffer, so that as the South African economy continues to grow and recover, that we have sufficient generation capacity to fuel support — provide the necessary oxygen so that we address the issues around the growth of the country.”