mega-gloom looms

Joel Avni

Joel Avni

Ten years ago Eskom informed the government that South Africa would run out of power by last year and would not be able to meet the insatiable demand for cheap electricity by a rocketing economy and ever-richer consumers.

"We said not now, later. We were wrong. Eskom was right," President Thabo Mbeki conceded a month ago.

Eskom has embarked on a R300billion dash to increase its electricity production capacity.

The problem is it takes ten years or longer to plan, build and commission a big power station.

The power utility can now produce about 35000 megawatts (MW) from its 17 stations. The company can also import another 2000MW from the Cahora Bassa hydroelectric system in Mozambique.

Reserve capacity dropped from 7percent last year - half the international norm - to minus 17percent.

Last weak Eskom had to shed 3000MW of demand around the country to prevent the national grid from being overpowered and knocked out of service.

Peak demand usually hovers around 34000MW, so things get dicey if even one big station is knocked off the grid. Four stations were recently taken down for maintenance, but the situation was thrown out of kilter by technical problems at other stations.

Peak demand is expected to rise by at least 50000MW by 2022. But estimating peak demand is a risky business, as the National Party government found when it spent a small fortune on excess capacity that had to be mothballed.

Three of those white elephants are now being brought back into service and Eskom has also built two small gas-powered plants in THE Western Cape. Those projects, and expanding capacity at existing coal-fired plants, will add another 5300MW to the national supply by early next year.

In 2010, more capacity will come on line from the coal-fired Matimba power station in Limpopo.

The electricity supply utility is also planning to extend small gas-fired plants on the Cape coast, but though these plants can be put up relatively quickly their output is measured in hundreds of megawatts, not the thousands that the country needs.

So Eskom is pinning its hopes on nuclear plants to add 20000MW of electricity by 2025.