The debate and discussion on the future of South Africa’s power generation mix is healthy and robust, and in many aspects is sharpening from broad discussions to a focus upon detail. The danger remains that too much discussion will delay or defer critical decisions, and the trick will be knowing when to stop talking and start doing. No doubt the tight electricity supply in South Africa will help focus minds.
One of the risks with the focus on the generation sector is to overlook what is required in other sectors, such as transmission, distribution and achieving Demand Side Management (DSM) and energy efficiency targets.
For example, Eskom’s rolling ten year transmission development plan sees it undertaking some R180 billion in capital expenditure over that period. This includes making up on the backlog in transmission grid infrastructure investment, ensuring that the grid can cater for demand from expanded and new load centres, and ensuring that new power stations are integrated into the national power system. The scope of the expansion in the transmission system is illustrated by the fact that transmission line capacity in South Africa will expand from 27,817 km to 45,492 km over the next ten years. That means mostly lines of 220 kV or higher.
The investment is great news for major equipment suppliers with large numbers of transformers, switchgear, cabling, etc. required. Another way of illustrating the expansion in store for us is the extent by which major load centres expect to increase in size over the next decade. The Johannesburg metro for example is expected to increase its demand from 4,100 MW in 2008 to a projected 7,450 MW in 2019.
Recently there was also the launch of a multi-stakeholder initiative to deal with the R4.4 billion of theft related electricity losses in South Africa, with Eskom CEO Brian Dames saying this is not just a low income township problem. The commercial and industrial sectors have also been responsible for some of these losses, and a tightening of the laws on electricity theft is being looked at.
After a decade of inaction the RED concept has been abandoned, and at least distributors can focus on how best to make up on their backlogs, and meet new capacity requirements.
Then there is the national solar water heating initiative in South Africa, one of the main DSM priorities that will contribute to a planned 3,700 MW of reductions. This will require more than simply the manufacture of solar water heaters. The units can be imported if necessary, and a new factory has been set up in the Eastern Cape to manufacture solar water heaters on a reasonable scale, but what is most required are sufficient trained installers of such systems.
On the renewable side, while both wind and grid connected photovoltaic groups continue to position themselves for the Refit process, these once exotic technologies now set to become part of the energy mix, research on further renewable alternatives is coming to the fore. One of these is wave energy, and South Africa’s south-western coast is well placed to become part of this. The technology is still evolving and this field is still in the early stages of evolution: The current installed ocean power capacity is in the order of 10 MW, but it has the potential to increase to over 1.0 GW on an annual investment of more than US$500 million over the next half decade, according to some estimates.
Smart metering technology also continues to evolve, with some indications that unified standards are slowly coming into place. Once that happens the dream of localised integration into the grid, not only as a passive consumer, could begin to evolve further.
Quite a lot is going on aside from the IRP discussion. While it may not seem so, the electricity crisis of 2008 has focused minds, and while the risks of too much debate and too little action remain, it is an exciting time. It must be recalled that while higher electricity prices are a bane, the normalisation of the real price of electricity in South and by consequence Southern Africa does free up more creative options for innovation at a number of levels.
Sometimes it takes a crisis to break stagnant patterns and we have certainly seen that.