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Picture: 123RF/mushroomsartthree
Picture: 123RF/mushroomsartthree

Electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa’s week of big promises last week ended with a giant anticlimax served up by the cabinet on Friday.

Speaking to a packed hall at the Solar Show in Johannesburg on Tuesday last week, the minister told the crowd exactly what they wanted to hear. Hope dared show its face as Ramokgopa spoke of the cabinet’s imminent approval of  the rollout of a “mega” 15,000MW bid window for renewable energy, and an “aggressive” rooftop solar drive.

The crowd was told the government would announce plans after last week’s cabinet meeting to make funding solutions available for the poor to access rooftop solar. He reminded everyone of Vietnam’s success in installing 9,000MW of rooftop solar in one year. Perhaps, at last, something was happening.

But then, at the postcabinet briefing on Friday, not a word was uttered about adding a lone solar watt to the grid. Instead, the cabinet “called on everyone to assist in saving electricity by using it sparingly”.

Having been unable to achieve much in the way of adding megawatts to the grid, the government and Eskom’s ambition now appears to have been reduced to feebly begging people to use less electricity through the implementation of its demand-side management campaign. The target, Friday’s postcabinet statement said, is to save about 1,000MW of power, which is equivalent to one stage of load-shedding.

Every little bit helps, but one stage down from stage 6 or 8 is not going to make life much easier for South Africans this winter.

Hopefully, Ramokgopa’s mega bid window and rooftop solar proposals will find traction in the government. Together, and if they are implemented in a targeted and rapid way, these plans can offer a meaningful solution to load-shedding in the next two years. They are probably more realistic than the two-year plan to improve the efficiency of Eskom’s coal-fired fleet from about 50% to 70%.

It is equally important that no more time is wasted stuck in the regulatory and legislative wasteland that has been impeding implementation. It has been almost 10 months since President Cyril Ramaphosa announced an action plan to end load-shedding and so far the plan has clocked up a talk/action ratio nobody can be proud of. Now, with winter looming, SA has run out of options to bring immediate relief from plummeting temperatures and rising stages of load-shedding.

Ramokgopa has warned that this will be a difficult winter during which, even at an average winter peak demand rate of 35,000MW against Eskom’s guaranteed available generation of 27,000MW, the need to resort to stage 8 or even higher stages of load-shedding seems increasingly inevitable.

The only option available to keep load-shedding at lower stages this winter is for Eskom to spend more on diesel so that it can run its emergency generation units, the open-cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) harder. But there are serious financial and logistical constraints in operating the OCGTs at higher capacity factors. Because of these constraints Eskom can only burn enough fuel to reduce load-shedding by about two stages for roughly six hours a day during peak times.

Within these constraints, the least Eskom and the government can do now is to ensure that money is available to run the OCGTs as effectively as possible this winter, and then to do all they can to make sure we have better options available this time next year. For 2023, our course is set and the forecast grim.

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