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Africa's powerhouse sheds its lead

By unknown | Jan 21, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Analysis by Joel Avni

Analysis by Joel Avni

Keep your battery-powered torches and wind-up radios close at hand, for we will be living with load shedding for at least the next five years.

Engineers need up to a decade to plan, build and commission a big new power station, so Eskom can do little to increase capacity in the short term.

No one will say how this will affect the World Cup in 2010, but inadequate power supplies will certainly put the brakes on our thriving economy.

Meanwhile, Eskom is engaged in a R300billion dash to meet the rocketing demand for electricity, but the next power station big enough to make a difference comes on line only in 2013.

And with demand growing by 10percent a year, that capacity has already been spoken for.

Demand has increased by 50percent since 1994. In 2001 Eskom had 20percent reserve capacity, even though it had mothballed several of the apartheid regime's older and less efficient coal-fired plants. Today that reserve often drops to 7 percent, which is less than half of the international norm. Sudden surges in demand could overpower the national grid and bring down the whole system.

The evaporating supply of electricity will stifle South Africa's economic growth and Eskom warned the government last week that it will not be able to handle any more large industrial projects such as smelters before 2013.

Businesses are clamouring for help and economists say the tottering power supply system could cripple the economy and will kill hopes for an expansionist spurt for at least five years.

South Africa has long provided its consumers with the cheapest electricity in the world. Our reserves of low-grade coal are almost equivalent to Saudi Arabia's reserves of oil. And we have used our dirty coal to power our generation of electricity.

That is a big part of the problem, say environmentalists. South Africa's inefficient coal-fired power stations belch huge quantities of pollutants such as greenhouse gases into the air and contribute greatly to climate change.

Eskom plans to generate more electricity from nuclear plants by 2020. Environmentalists and proponents of nukes quibble over whether nuclear plants generate less greenhouse gases than coal-fired plants.

Tens of millions of new consumers have joined the cash economy since 1994 and industries have flocked to set up shop in the continent's powerhouse.

Demand now hovers just below Eskom's generating capacity of 38000MW. One little blip at a big power station throws the whole equation out of balance. Rather than trip the whole national system, Eskom arbitrarily cuts power to big users and regions - and that's what we call load shedding.

Better get used to it, for we will be living with these rolling blackouts for years.


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