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South Africa. Energy – Power for the future

Technically speaking, they call them ‘load-sheddings’ but they actually are scheduled blackouts, which can last for hours. They are well-known by South Africans, who already experienced them in 2008 and in the last months repeatedly faced them again.

Even big cities as Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town have not been spared and the result were traffic jams, when the traffic lights stopped working; street lights turned off, with consequences for personal safety and even difficulties in phone communications, when the structures of the local utility Telkom were affected by the blackout.
These important outcomes – which might also have an impact on the already slow South African economic growth and possible foreign investments in the future – were highly predictable since late 2013. At the end of that year the national electric company Eskom aired concerns about the condition of the electric network: power stations and electric lines, in fact, are mostly ageing and they are no longer suitable for the needs of a developing society and economy.

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The oldest plants, such as the ones in Komati (Mpumalanga province) and Kelvin (in Gauteng) were in fact built in the late Fifties or early Sixties, even if they have subsequently undergone upgrading. To face this situation two new power stations (Kusile near Witbank, in Mpumalanga and Medupi, not far from Lepahale, Limpopo) will become operational between 2015 and 2018. Once more, they are coal-fired plants. Nowadays 88% of South Africa’s electric power and 77% of the overall energy production in the country are provided by this mineral, from which also some types of fuel are made. The relevance of coal is a long-standing feature of South Africa at least since 1880, when coal from Vereeniging was used in the Kimberley mining fields. The situation is unlikely to change in the next few years. According to some estimates, South Africa’s coal reserves may last for another 200 years and the costs of their exploitation are slightly lower compared to those of other non-renewable sources.

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Depending on only one commodity, however, has its limits and load-sheddings are a clear proof of it. They were started after one relatively minor event, the collapse of a coal silo in the Majuba power plant, also located in Mpumalanga province. Most of the power stations have been built there due to the need to be next to the mines and keep transportation costs low. Well aware of these problems, the authorities in Pretoria outlined an ambitious ten years-long programme: according to the Energy ministry’s ‘Annual Performance Plan 2014-2015’, by 2025 30% of power must be provided through ‘clean’ sources and companies other than Eskom (which now provides 95% of the production) will be encouraged to take part in the process.

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This plan has been established as a priority by president Zuma himself. According to him, responding to the energy shortages of the country will be an essential step in creating an environment facilitating growth. Being maybe struck by the ‘hydrocarbon boom’ in many African States (including, among South Africa’s neighbours, Mozambique) Zuma then unveiled a plan to drill at least 30 deep-water gas and oil exploration wells along South Africa’s coastline. He also quoted studies suggesting that South Africa had potential oil reserves of up to 9 billion barrels of oil and 11 billion barrels of natural gas. Gas, of the ‘shale’ type, can also be found in the northern Karoo desert and could be exploited through fracking. According to the president, the nation must “explore this potential”.
As for research on ‘clean’ energy sources, the country in 2012 invested some 4,4 billion dollars for research on renewable energies: solar power seems to be the most promising among those. In July, South Africa, with a production of over 0,5 Gw, was listed among the 10 countries exploiting this technology the most: it currently has 13 operating plants. However, Pretoria seems willing to rely more on nuclear power for the future: the government plans to get 9,6 Gw from this source. Even the first steps towards this goal, though, have caused controversies. (D.M.)

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