If South Africans had more electricity, they could see him on TV. Chris Yelland, the electrical engineer turned energy journalist entrepreneur, is the scourge of Eskom, South Africa’s nationalized power utility. His voice is critical, outspoken and more consistent than the electricity supply from Eskom.
“When I started Energize magazine , a lot of doomsayers said to me ‘what the hell do you want to start a new magazine for?’ they also said ‘what more can you say before you run out of hot stories?’. Energy at that time was a boring subject. There was not a lot of interest. People just assumed when you switched on the plug and flicked the switch, electricity would come out the wall. Fortunately for us, and by chance, energy has become a hot topic. It actually affects everybody. Not just industry, not just commerce, but the man or woman in the street. We’ve had to learn that behind the plug lies a multi-billion-rand industry,” says Yelland.
Yelland has had a lot to talk about over the last 10 years. Eskom has the capacity to provide 41,194 megawatts (MW). Its aging fleet of power stations, many built 30 years ago, runs at 33,000MW, and cannot match the current demands of 38,000MW.
For many years South Africans have been smug towards electricity. A common joke told locally was: What did Zimbabweans use before candles? Electricity. Now, that joke, and the smugness, has come home to roost.
The short term solution is ‘load shedding’; in English, this means scheduled power cuts. They are words that mean shops close, mines shut down and computer nerds cringe at losing their unsaved data. According to Yelland, load shedding is a vicious circle; as the power utility pleads with the country to use less energy, it hampers its operations.
“Electricity consumption at this moment is at a seven-year low. Ever since 2008, [when load shedding first was implemented], it’s been going down. This means Eskom’s sales are going down. Their revenue is going down but their costs are going up. In the last six months of 2014, Eskom declared a profit of R9.3 billion (around $800 million), but that was over the winter period, when their prices are nearly double the summer period because demand for electricity is high. In the second six months of 2015, their projected profit is going to see a loss of R9 billion ($780 million). It’s going to wipe out the entire profit for the first six months of the year. Why? “Because they haven’t got enough electricity to sell. They are throttling the economy telling people to use less,” says Yelland.
A four-year delay in coal power plant projects Medupi and Kusile has made matters worse. The projects which were due to be completed in 2013 and 2014 were expected to bring around 10,000MW to alleviate the grid. The delays mean their price tags, estimated at R69.1 billion ($6 billion) and R80.6 billion ($7 billion) in 2007, have now nearly doubled to R154.2 billion ($13.3 billion) and R172.2 billion ($14.9 billion). Alone, they amount to an annual loss of R30 billion ($2.6 billion) in electricity sales.
“All 12 units will be online by 2020 at the earliest, if nothing further goes wrong. They are not a short term solution to South Africa’s needs,” says Yelland.
The power crisis has also meant Eskom spends around R1 billion ($86.7 billion) on diesel every month to run open-cycle gas turbines. Ironically, the country doesn’t have the infrastructure to run on gas, which the turbines are designed for and which would be a cheaper, cleaner alternative to diesel, says Yelland.
There is light in the gloom. A thousand megawatts is generated by renewable energy projects, built by private companies and then sold back to Eskom at set tariffs.
“The success stories are not government success stories, they are private: private capital; private technology; built, owned and operated privately; and then generated into the grid,” says Yelland.
What’s more, a study by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa, found that the cost of the renewable energy projects was less than the cost of the blackouts, and didn’t cost the tax payer a cent.
“In fact, it’s contributed towards reducing costs, meaning we had to spend less on diesel. Of course that’s only valid on shortages like the wave we have had at the moment. If we weren’t using diesel, if it was a normal country with a surplus of energy, [renewables] would cost us,” says Yelland.
Renewables do have a downside and are not the solution to Eskom’s crisis. The sun and wind are not constant. At any given time the 1,000MW of energy supplied will most likely produce 250MW.
“This is rated output, that is what is expected when the sun is blowing full blast and when the wind is blowing full ball. For every 100MW of renewable energy of capacity, you have to build an equal amount of conventional, mid-merit plants, to back up and provide power when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining. If you are trying to deliver 100MW and the sun goes behind a cloud, you can’t just switch off half of your customers,” says Yelland.
In the short term, Eskom’s crisis is further threatened by a R3-billion ($260 million) bailout to enable it to purchase diesel for the next month. Yelland believes Eskom needs to restructure.
“Eskom’s structure is the same structure as when it was set up 80 years ago. The world has changed since then. Other organizations like Sasol are not state-owned enterprises any longer. I believe if Eskom took on strategic equity partners, and listed on the stock exchange, it would raise significant capital resources without the need to raise tariffs. We need to inject new blood into something that is currently something akin to that of a dinosaur. [Eskom] is slow moving, ponderous and unable to adapt to the changing environment. If things carry on like this, it will go extinct just like the dinosaur did,” says Yelland.
You could argue that dinosaurs, when they were around, had more power.