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Fixing Eskom is vital as most households can’t afford to get off the grid

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OPINION: South Africa is a majority-poor nation. Of the 12.5 million households, around 8.1 million households are considered to be indigent households languishing in extreme poverty and receiving social grants. As a result, most homes cannot afford to all self provide and get off the grid, writes Adil Nchabeleng.

Minister of Electricity Dr Kgosientsho Ramokgopa. File picture: Timothy Bernard, African News Agency (ANA)

ON THE eve of the 30th week of the year, Eskom suddenly lost in excess of 5,000MW in power plant units. Well, there should be a logical reason as to why there was a sudden drop in the Electricity Availability Factor (EAF) and plant failure. But to lose 5,000MW overnight is not a norm in the energy sector.

Ever since the newly-appointed Minister of Electricity, Dr Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, took over, we did witness a significant reduction in load shedding from Stage 6 plus to lesser stages. He has been at battle to ensure that more power units are brought back into operation. He battled for weeks to add a further 10% improvement on the EAF and power plants’ performance over his short tenure.

When Ramokgopa took over as Electricity Minister, Eskom’s EAF had dropped to lower than 49%, and it was worse during summer. However, last week, Eskom suffered a crisis and was forced to implement an above Stage 6 load shedding schedule. It lost more than 5,000MW of generating units due to tube leak problems in power generating units.

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The winter cold frost spike didn’t help the energy crisis that the power utility was facing. Instead, it made matters worse. As we entered the deep winter, the demand for electricity jumped from 27,000 MW to 33,000 MW on average a day and that spelt disaster.

Of course, Eskom’s board, top executives and system operator’s team knew well in advance that winter would be an energy demand spike period, so advanced planning was necessary. But then, unit after unit started to break down at a phenomenal, unprecedented rate due to boiler tube leaks.

Overall, there are about 12 areas of boiler tube leak failures in a plant, and of that, six leak failures are the top most severe leaks that can force the shut down of a unit. The main cause of the plant unit failures is due to tube leak failures located in boiler house failures, such as fly-ash erosion, welding defects and overheating failure mechanisms. To fix this, specialised teams have to be assigned to attend to these tube leak issue areas.

The energy crisis in South Africa is unique. These phenomena of load shedding and power cuts can be ended and fixed in a short period. It is not rocket science to run and operate power stations.

I believe load shedding can be sorted and phased out in three months if the decision-makers willed it so. It would need to be coupled with a proper plan to mitigate plant failure and ensure that all power units stay running optimally.

There was once an Eskom which towered amongst the best utilities in the world. At one stage, Eskom plants were rated the best-performing power plants in the world, ranking in the top 5 best utilities in the world. To top it up, South Africa has highly advanced technical and technological know-how skills.

Most of SA can’t afford alternative energy solutions

In a recent conversation with a long-time dear friend, whom I had not seen for some years, he expressed a concerned view on how things have fallen apart in South Africa to such extremes that life has turned out to be about everyone for themselves. We were talking generally about the state of the nation on all fronts but the energy crisis automatically becomes the focus point.

He echoed his huge disappointment in the way the country is heading. As we discussed the electricity crisis further, his views were that everyone must just opt out of the grid and self-provide for their energy needs by installing an alternative solar, inverter and battery system to avert the frustrations of load shedding. Yes, this would make sense as a solution to any higher middle class and a rich person frustrated with load shedding.

But then I reminded him of the hard facts. South Africa is a majority-poor nation. Of the 12.5 million households, around 8.1 million households are considered to be indigent households languishing in extreme poverty and receiving social grants. As a result, most homes cannot afford to all self provide and get off the grid. There are more people than we imagine who live in a permanent state of poverty.

So the little basic electricity the poor receive makes a huge difference to their welfare. The capital requirement for a household to install a solar grid-tied solution or alternatively go off the grid and self provide through a smart solar inverter battery system is still high and costly in South Africa.

The average cost to install a decent 5Kw grid-tied solar and battery solution (2-hour load capacity) for a three-bedroom house is at an average starting cost of R75,000 per unit. This is a basic low capacity entry-level home solar system. The cost escalates and doubles when considering a decent 24-hour day and night home solar solution that can sufficiently provide for an entire household’s energy requirements.

So imagine the severity of the problem on affordability and cost. We over assume that everyone in South Africa can automatically afford to move away from Eskom and install an off-grid or grid-tied solar solution in their homes. That is not the case in our country. Load shedding has shown how widened the inequality and income gap is in our society.

When Eskom’s power is off, in an average ward of about 200 plus houses, less than 10 houses in that ward will be lit through solar alternatives. That equates to about 5% of houses in that small community of about 200 to be running on an alternative solar solution.

Mind you, this is in a high-income suburb, generally referred to as leafy suburbs, with a Woolworths store and two cars parked in the garage neighbourhood. They, too, cannot afford to install a back-up alternative home solar solution to Eskom.

So, can you imagine the plight of those that are in the lowest income or no income category communities? An average indigent two-bedroom, a 50 square metre house on a 156 square metre area RDP house in South Africa sells for roughly R55,000.

Now picture this, between 6 to 8 million houses in the country are RDP homes. These indigent homes, with the rate of government intervention policies, will never afford to transition to alternative energy solutions. The costs to transition are just prohibitive and discouraging to the poor.

In the affordable housing income with an average income of R15,000 to R45,000 category, there are about four types of grant-supported housing schemes based on the national government’s framework on Human Settlements, namely: a) social, b) transitional, c) gap, and d) inclusionary housing under the affordable housing category.

And further down the scale, there is the state-funded free RDP housing scheme. The houses are given away for free to the poor as a means to kick-start them in the process of owning a property. The municipalities in these communities have installed either prepaid metering or electricity is provided for free.

Most of the RDP housing communities are based in townships and informal settlements. They experience the worst form of load shedding. Normal leafy suburb load shedding schedules do not apply in these areas. They are on a most severe form of load reduction programme, and they can go for days without electricity.

Electricity is fundamental to human development and the growth of society into a respectable nation. We cannot underplay the vital importance that electricity plays in ordinary day-to-day life. Without electricity, human civilisation and progress grinds to a halt.

Malls, shopping centres, schools, clinics and traffic lights, water pressure levels low due to electricity cuts and the gradual breaking down of infrastructure is normal, with many other related frustrations that are basic irritants due to power cuts and load shedding.

Most of the government interventions to assist in the energy transition are still fixated on addressing the problem of the electricity crisis from a top-down approach. The classical case is the intervention by the government through tax rebates, whereas the biggest crisis and impact of the electricity crisis is at the centre and in the bottom-up of our society.

Those days of having hope in a greater future have turned bleak, and most citizens are sceptics of anything that the government proposes to fix and deliver to the citizens. Where did it all go wrong? Can the state still self-correct itself?

* Crown Prince Adil Nchabeleng is president of Transform RSA and an independent energy expert.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the DFA.

– BUSINESS REPORT

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