South Africa’s energy madness

iaj logo NO TEXT JPGA week of intensive exposure to energy debates in South Africa has left me doubting the sanity of the nation. There is no consensus on the way forward to provide the energy we need to sustain growth and conserve the environment. We persist in looking in the wrong places for solutions we know are not solutions. That’s madness isn’t it?

The energy scene is a muddle from which we must free ourselves with a collective focus on technogically and socially viable solutions. The trouble is we are divided in mind and soul, fighting over narrow interests rather than responding to the one big challenge of how to produce enough power at optimum cost to serve the needs of all.

The media are very much part of the madness. Not only do many journalists and their editors fail to understand – or apply their minds to – energy issues, but they continue to blow this way and that in the winds of opinion instead of focusing on the priorities of safety, cost, health and sustainability. Take a look at The Media are the Muddle.

South Africa’s reliance on coal is legendary; it’s filthy but readily available and the easiest option. Well, maybe not so easy. The tragi-comedy called the construction of the new Medupi Power Station, with its repeated delays, is costing the taxpayer millions in contractual violations and wildcat strike violence.

Meanwhile we are looking at a slew of nuclear power stations on our coastlines along with fracking in the underground shales of the fragile Karoo. In both instances the people most closely affected on the ground have not been properly consulted but the State seems set on going ahead with its own nuclear plans and granting permissions to fuel corporation frackers.

The results may well equal and surpass the ugliness of our coal-blackened past.

Of course, it’s easy to find fault. Criticism is easy and abundant among those who are regarded as energy experts. But solutions are much harder to come by.

The Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ), whose mission is to train media people for open public communication, organised the weeklong energy workshop under the title Powerlines. Our group consisted of six Nigerians from media and government who were here to make some comparisons with their own country; and three South African journalists. We trotted around Johannesburg meeting the people in power: those who are building our energy future.

They were all good, concerned, imaginative citizens…and all at loggerheads with one another. We didn’t meet with anyone in the Cabinet where final decisions will be taken, or most likely, fudged as we continue to muddle on.

A publisher of magazines in the energy sector, Chris Yelland, put the cap on things when he said South Africa needed to take a decision – any decision – and stick with it. I can’t agree that any solution would do, but he has point: we need to concentrate our minds.

In the course of five days, our IAJ group visited Eskom, Sasol, the nuclear facilities at Necsa, the energy regulator Nersa, and the Department of Energy. We also called on a small business, Solar Charge, which supplies municpalities with off-grid solar traffic lights and provides containers with internet terminals for township youth groups.

We had a fascinating and disturbing morning with the activists in the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee who demand free power; and received briefings from Doug Kuni of the Independent Power Producers Association (who said free the market from regulation), and Tristan Taylor of Earthlife Africa (who said we will wreck our planet unless we wholly embrace clean green renewable energy sources).

Eskom rolled out the red carpet and blew us away with presentations on most aspects of its huge energy business. As a state-owned enterprise Eskom is protected from competition but not from public opinion. They are sensitive to criticism. Their sustainability briefing hit all the correct headings but somehow left me wondering whether environmentalists, accountants or technologists are really in the saddle: who is riding the powerful Eskom horse? My guess is that choices are sometimes reasoned comprises between environment, pricing and convenience – and sometimes just happen.

Sasol impSasol-Logoressed us with its gas-driven energy plant which outputs 147 MW of electricity largely for internal usage, with a small overflow to the national grid. This, the country’s largest gas power plant, was built on time and under budget: proof if any were needed that the private sector can produce energy on demand.

Jonas Mosia, a spokesman on energy matters for Cosatu, assured us that the labour federation is onboard with efforts to solve the energy crisis, but he could not provide an explanation for the fact that labour/contractor disputes constantly bring Medupi construction to a shuddering halt. The original contracts are a large part of the problem, and Eskom’s apparent readiness to bend to wildcat threats compounds things.

Yet surely all parties must realise that progress on the plant is a priority? It’s that national goals problem again. Without partnerships, the people perish.

We paid a visit to the Apartheid Museum to remind ourselves of the political context of energy issues. One of the displays features the June 1980 attacks on Sasol and the Natref refinery by ANC guerillas who chose Republic Day to make their point about the vulnerability of strategic industries.

Strategically, the imperative today is to provide jobs and deal with poverty. Michael Avery, representing the South Africa Water, Energy and Food Forum explained that a whole complex of health, welfare, and supply factors are bound up in our energy needs. The demand for water will push up the demand for energy in an increasingly crowded and polluted world; and unless we look after hygiene and sanitation people will get sick or starve.

This was a sombre message and it got even gloomier in Soweto. Here, activists among the abjectly poor (who were as passionate and hungry as the favelistas active in the slums of Rio and Sao Paulo) said in no uncertain terms that they would simply connect up to electricity illegally if it wasn’t given to them.  They asserted blithely that politicians are paid so much and drive such big cars that the country can definitely afford free electricity.

Eskom’s new green electrical boxes are designed to prevent power theft, an unpopular move that results in the boxes being vandalised.

The national regulator told us that the poor do get free electricity – up to a point. On the so-called inclining block system, poor households get free kilowatts until their consumption reaches a certain point; then a slidinNERSA LOGO JPGg scale comes into play. (If a shack is full of families the costs will rise quickly.)

“Why,” one of the regulatory officials asked me, “are poor people happy to pay for cellphone calls and yet they won’t pay for electricity? They chat away wasting money but they don’t riot for free calls. It amazes me.”

Our Nigerian guests were at first puzzled but finally openly sceptical of South Africa’s unwillingness and inability to overcome sectional interests and join hands to resolve the energy crisis. Nigerians too have a serious crisis – so serious, in fact, that they have decided to throw open the doors to privatisation of the energy sector.

Where Eskom currently has around 44 000 MW of installed capacity, Nigeria has only about 4000 MW for a country with more than three times the population of ours (160 million). They have no national grid to speak of and it’s time for emergency measures.

In the far south of the continent, however, we are clinging tightly to State control of major energy provision. No large-scale privatisation for us, crisis or no crisis. The best the government has offered so far is to permit the private sector to provide renewable energy under a procurement programme that may ultimately provide up to 42% of total power needs. It remains to be seen whether that target over the next 20 years is achievable.

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David Fig…nuclear dangers

According to South Africa’s Integrated Resource Plan IRP2010, Eskom will set out to build six nuclear power stations with a capacity of 9.6 GW by 2030. That’s a huge leap in supply, and a dangerous one considering the risks of accidents and the problem of radiation waste disposal. At the Visitor Centre of Necsa, the Nuclear Energy Corporation based at Pelindaba west of Pretoria, where South Africa’s bombs were built and then dismantled, we received a spirited defence of nuclear technology in pursuit of peace.

But an environmental sociologist, David Fig, warned that if South Africa embraces nuclear energy on the scale envisaged, we could return to the type of security state that existed under apartheid.

Do we want to go for nuclear power to solve all our problems (and create more), or do we believe that renewables in the form of solar, wind, wave, hydro and maybe geothermal power can free us from the dark clouds of pollution and radiation? We should seek the workable, safe options and pull together as a team. Funding could then be concentrated on the innovations required to produce a real answer to the energy crisis. The way we are going now, money will filter into the sands of doubt and sleaze, and be lost.

Molten_Earth_by_VNGRPIt seemed to me after reviewing the existing technologies of renewables, that wind and solar simply cannot provide enough power to substitute them for existing dirty technologies. Wind and solar are expensive to instal, aren’t reliable in terms of ongoing baseload provision, and actually can’t produce enough power unless there are massive installations which create their own environmental problems.

The optimism of greenies that these renewables could solve our problems struck me as misplaced: another kind of madness. Danish environmental researcher Bjørn Lomborg presents hard factual evidence that solar and wind energy account for a trivial proportion of current renewables and will continue to do so, despite billions being poured into developing them. Even if that the world’s governments fulfill all of their green promises, wind will provide a mere 1.34% of global energy by 2035, while solar will provide 0.42%.

Concentrated solar power (using a dish to focus the energy) is even more expensive and would require enormous installations.

If limited renewables can’t save us, and coal, nuclear and fracking are bad for our globe and our health, where are we going? We really don’t know. Efforts by the Department of Energy to bring order to the chaos are hindered by the slow pace of decision-making at political leadership level, which in itself reflects divided opinions about how to move forward. While the National Development Plan is government policy, many in the governing alliance reject it in whole or in part – including labour and left-leaning elements who see the NDP as a capitalist plot.

Our system of energy governance looks good from the outside with an energy regulator that is sincerely trying to remain independent of government and corporate influence. Yet price determinations have substantially increased the costs of electricity; customers scream blue murder; Eskom says it can’t operate or invest unless prices are redoubled; and government sits with a quandary of how to fund new energy and not lose elections.

The real problem is that as a nation we cannot agree on the broad goals of social and economic policy.  Do we want a fully centralised, socialist state; a liberalised economy trusting to the invisible hand of the market; or something vaguely in-between that reconciles the interests of the poor, the investors, the energy corporations and the hard-pressed businesses and homeowners who are footing the bill. What do we want?

Currently the country is lumbering along with a fossil-fuel economy that is dirty, inefficient, costly, and – in the case of the new coal-fired power stations – disabled by labour unrest and corruption. These problems will not go away but could well be compounded by any decision to spend mega-billions of taxpayer money on the nuclear option. According to David Fig, where the Arms Deal cost R64 billion the nuclear power stations could run into R1 trillion. Just imagine the opportunities for rake-offs in the atmosphere of secrecy that is bound to prevail.

It’s madness to go ahead without exploring every other possible option – and there is one major alternative: geothermal power, of which more below.

Nuclear is not yet a done deal. We heard at the Department of Energy that the first call for proposals will soon be tabled and from then on the process will involve negotiations, procurements and final allocations. A long road lies ahead.

dirty coal plant

Coal pollution… a global issue

Renewable wind and solar power from the private sector may come onstream relatively quickly but these do not offer enough power for the baseload needs of the country. They must become a growing part of the energy mix. We will continue to rely on coal-fired, oil and gas resources; all of which contribute our not-insubstantial carbon load to global warming and climate change.

There is an ideological impasse – or set of mental silos – from which we seem unable to free ourselves. Solving the energy crisis is going to take an act of national imagination comparable to the political settlement of 1994. It is exactly that kind of coming-together that is now needed.

In another blog on these pages I have suggested that the longer-term answer to our problems may lie under our feet in the form of geothermal energy. Geothermal is already drawn off in places like Iceland and parts of America where hot springs lie close to the surface. South Africa has the mining technology to accomplish a world first in the provision of massive amounts of energy from the deep earth.

We should spent out R1 trillion in South Africa developing the engineering tools to tap into the Earth’s inexhaustible heat. We could do away with the horrors of radiation seeping from no-go storage areas and nuclear deserts where cities once stood before there were nuclear melt-downs. Despite assurances that it won’t happen, it has happened at Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Geothermal is a solution that meets all criteria for baseload, clean, sustainable, limitless and technologically feasible energy production. Why don’t we do it? We’re crazy.

-         Graeme Addison, IAJ Workshop Facilitator

August 2013

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