The candle in the wind that is state-run power utility Eskom has warned that the power system will be constrained until at least the end of August next year. That means investment and economic growth will remain stunted for the foreseeable future.
Eskom gave an update on the “state of the system” on Monday. It’s not very good.
“The capacity outlook for the period ending August 2022 shows that the power system remains constrained. Eskom will be required to extensively use the Open Cycle Gas Turbines to either avert load shedding or to reduce the magnitude thereof,” the utility said in a statement.
So load shedding will be a regular feature of South African life until the end of August next year, and only the heavy use of diesel and gas will mitigate it. That means power shortages will continue to deter investment and hobble the economy’s ability to fire on all cylinders, hobbling growth.
This in turn means that no meaningful dent can be made into a world-beating unemployment rate of 34.4%. No big plans for new mines or factories will be in the pipeline, so de-industrialisation will continue apace. An economy cannot at this stage of the 21st century industrialise to re-industrialise without a reliable power supply — unless you are looking at some late 18th or early 19th century modes of industrialisation. But South Africa is not about to send out a fleet to start harpooning whales again.
Eskom and the wider economy remain caught in a vicious cycle. The utility needs to accelerate its maintenance programme on its ageing fleet of coal-powered plants, but that — along with frequent failures — means it often does not have enough capacity to meet demand.
“Our objective is to achieve a reliable and sustainable generation plant, thereby reducing the risk and frequency of the occurrence of load shedding. As such, Eskom will not compromise on reliability maintenance and mid-life refurbishment,” Eskom Group Chief Operating Officer Jan Oberholzer said in a statement.
“However painful in the short term, this maintenance we have to do in order to ensure future reliability.
“We are aware that the increased maintenance does elevate the probability of load shedding in the short term, but this is necessary to improve the future performance of the generation fleet,” Oberholzer said.
He also said there was an “urgent need” for another 4,000MW to 6,000MW of generation capacity.
Eskom’s planned maintenance programme means an average of 5,500MW is offline at any one time, hence the urgent need for 4,000MW to 6,000MW.
Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe has been flagging nuclear power and additional coal to fill this void, but neither is really affordable and cannot be built as a matter of urgency — just look at the debacle of the Medupi and Kusile power plants. Then there are the controversial power ships, a plan that may still get sunk.
Solar plants, for one, can be built much faster and more cheaply than coal.
In the meantime, ANC mandarins can talk all they like about economic growth, job creation and industrialisation. Without a steady and affordable supply of power — not to mention the cleaner sources needed to make South African products competitive in a global economy that will start penalising heavy carbon usage — it will remain talk. And hot air is not going to keep the lights on. DM/BM