/ 10 May 2024

The power’s back on, but at what cost?

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Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, South Africa's electricity minister, speaks to a reporter as he arrives for the annual state of the nation address in Cape Town. Photo: Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg via Getty Images

We’ve all seen the memes: posts bracing for the load-shedding that will surely return after the May elections. 

This week the country hit a significant milestone: 40 days without blackouts — an anomaly these days. Many cynics suspect a quiet directive might have been issued to Eskom to keep the power on at all costs in an election year. 

But listen to Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa in his bi-weekly energy action updates and you’ll hear him talk about maintenance. An emphasis on maintenance late last year is why we have more generation capacity now, he claims. 

It does help that units at stations such as Kusile have come back online, adding megawatts to the grid.

Independent analysts are divided. Some believe there is lower demand during peak hours. Others believe the increase of renewable energy sources such as solar have eased the reliance on Eskom.

Yet others say it’s diesel, and that our newfound power is thanks to burning a lot of it. Diesel is primarily used to run the open cycle gas turbines — a costly contingency ordinarily reserved for emergencies. 

Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan said this week that R5.8 billion was spent on diesel in 2019-20, R5.75 billion in 2020-2021 and R8.6 billion in 2021-22. Eskom burnt diesel worth R21.25 billion in 2022‑23 and R23.38 billion in 2023‑24. The last two years’ figures are obscenely higher than before.

Our coverage this week quotes some experts who believe it is more cost-effective to spend these amounts on diesel than to deal with higher levels of load-shedding, which severely affect the economy. 

Nersa, which determines what money Eskom can spend when it receives treasury funds, says Eskom is spending much more on diesel, and that half of its diesel budget for this quarter was spent in one month. The diesel budget will be blown sooner, which will inevitably mean a tariff hike for us hapless consumers. 

South Africa’s leaders, Eskom, and the general mismanagement in the country have turned most of us into cynics. So when we see no load-shedding our suspicions are raised.

We don’t believe the notion that a badly run enterprise like Eskom suddenly did effective maintenance last year. We struggle to be convinced that the winter outlook Eskom released, which anticipates stage two load-shedding, will come through.

At least Ramokgopa and Eskom’s new chief executive Dan Marokane speak with some semblance of truth when they admit no one is under any illusions that load-shedding has come to an end — blackouts will still hit us in the future. 

How often, remains to be seen. How much we spend on diesel this year will ultimately tell us whether this reprieve in load-shedding is due to diesel use or actual change at the power stations and in the running of the power utility. Justified cynicism and scepticism remain the order of the day.