LOAD-SHEDDING: To stage four — and beyond! Picture: GALLO IMAGES
LOAD-SHEDDING: To stage four — and beyond! Picture: GALLO IMAGES

The stage four load-shedding (or, as we should more correctly call it, the rolling blackouts) of the past week has highlighted the fact that our country’s energy security is not just at risk,but is in fact in terminal decline.

That public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan has blamed this situation on the loss of 900MW of power from Cahora Bassa in Mozambique is indicative of the over-reliance on foreign sources of power to shore up our failing electricity supply. Energy minister Jeff Radebe has pointed to the yet-to-be completed Grand Inga hydro-electric project as the potential saviour of our future supply, showing that the current government really hasn’t got a clue when it comes to energy security.

Grand Inga has been 10 years in construction and we are unlikely to see any power from this source in the next 10.

The integrated resource plan (IRP), which determines the mix of electricity supply, is supposed to be reviewed every two years — but the last approved plan dates back to 2010! The Electricity Regulation Act of 2006 requires the National Electricity Regulator of SA (Nersa) to issue regulations for the implementation of the IRP, but no such regulations have been forthcoming since the plan was approved, nine years ago now.

The current draft of the IRP has been on the table since November 2017, and Radebe made a commitment that it would be approved before the end of 2018. That hasn’t happened, leading to further paralysis in the energy sector. The IRP identifies electricity demand forecasts and defines how this demand will be met. This lack of clarity has resulted in a failure to meet the demand and has eroded investor confidence in SA’s ability to meet the needs of our economy.

The starting point for energy security has to be diversification of local supply. My colleague, Natasha Mazzone, recently tabled the Independent System Market Operator private member’s bill (colloquially referred to as the cheaper electricity bill) in parliament, which would split Eskom into a transmission/ distribution entity and a generation entity, with the assets of the latter being privatised over time. This would enhance competition by allowing independent power producers (IPPs) to sell directly to municipalities, as well as the national grid. In fact, the DA-led city of Cape Town is currently taking Radebe to court to obtain the right to purchase electricity from IPPs.

Our energy security relies on a sustainable base-load, generating a constant, reliable base supply of electricity, supplemented by load-following plants (able to increase supply as demand increases) and the more expensive peaking plants (which only kick in when demand spikes significantly).

SA must also liberalise its small-scale, embedded generation regulatory regime. It is currently difficult and costly for the average homeowner or small business to install and run their own private supply

IPPs could realistically fill any of these roles. Because base-load requires a constant minimum supply, it is often suggested that only coal-fired, nuclear or gas-driven plants meet the reliability of supply requirement. SA’s abundant coal supply has made coal-fired plants the staple of our base-load supply.

However, we urgently need to ensure that our coal emissions are controlled if we are to continue to utilise this as a primary source of base-load power. We also need to reconsider our knee-jerk opposition to nuclear power.

Where properly constructed by reputable suppliers to an agreed budget and within an agreed timeframe, with extensive safety and nuclear waste disposal protocols in place, nuclear is undoubtedly a viable source of base load power.

Renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind, are frequently criticised as being unreliable — unable to meet demand 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In the case of wind, a large number of plants, geographically dispersed, can, in fact, provide a reasonably stable and predictable baseline of supply. The rapid development of solar thermal technology (and more specifically its storage) means solar plants can now provide power for up to 19 hours a day.

Our national grid is already capable of handling significant fluctuations in supply, as evinced by the current load-shedding, and the installation (and maintenance!) of peaking plants will provide the necessary augmentation to stabilise supply and meet demand.

This falls squarely within the ambit of Nersa. If we are to save our economy we need to encourage small scale users to go “off-grid”, not require them to jump through hoops to do so.

The current electricity crisis was precipitated by an increasingly captured and unwieldy Eskom; a lack of a clearly defined and agreed on IRP; a failure to maintain our existing generation and transmission infrastructure; and a moribund and out-of-touch government. Without urgent intervention and significant steps taken to address the situation, it is unlikely that SA will be able to meet the demand for electricity in the short to medium term.

• Mileham is DA shadow energy minister.