By Hügo Krüger
The end of the rolling blackouts, which started in 2008, is expected to continue in the foreseeable future, with no doubt that the poorest South Africans will suffer the consequences of “load shedding” that includes high youth unemployment, an increase in the crime rate and children having to study by candlelight.
Despite their rhetoric, we would be forgiven to think that the politicians who live in the uptown business communities, and whose power is never cut, don’t seem to care that the power utility is dying and that the ramifications of such a policy approach can spark revolution and threaten the survival of the state.
Eskom’s board has a higher budget allocated for diesel (R22 billion) than for maintaining the 16GW of power that is out of service (R10.5bn). The power utility is being forced into the type of policies that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would have recommended had South Africa be ran by callous technocrats. Cut the Budget, make sure that it doesn’t work and then, get people angry enough so that privatisation (that is, in practice, rent-seeking, with the state underwriting the oligarch’s risks) becomes the only attractive solution.
Do our leaders care that 2.7 million people in the wider Mpumalanga region, of whom most are black and unionised, might soon have to flock to the larger metropoles as the coal communities collapse?
Eskom’s failure has turned modern South Africa into a neo-feudal country, with bad policy decisions and corruption at the heart of it.
If a visitor from the 1970s were to return today, he would have noted that the apartheid government achieved its long-standing ambition of establishing a permanent serf class – not through racial legislation, but rather by coalescing the black managerial and white business elites into accepting stringent environmental laws as they neglect the maintenance of the coal fleet.
A policy that induces fuel poverty in the name of “the climate” and “the end of coal” is as cruel as one that restricts them from owning property on colonial paternalistic grounds.
The anti-coal propaganda speaks to Noam Chomsky’s remarks that one should never underestimate the psychological burden of suppressing obvious truths while maintaining the required doctrines of benevolence.
Today, of Eskom’s roughly 50GW generation capacity, 16GW are out of permanent service and 6GW is said to be under maintenance. Under ideal conditions, Eskom should have 5GW under current routine maintenance, with no plant permanently out of service. Yet, with 21GW being off-line, there are almost as many units out of service as in service. South Africa’s coal fleet is, therefore, one of the few in the world that is more intermittent than renewable energy.
We are being offered all kinds of solutions, ranging from the marginal to nonsensical, such as privatisation, increasing renewables (with Eskom’s former executive Jan Oberholzer landing a new job in a renewable energy firm), LNG Imports, transmission lines being built out to the Northern Cape and an increase in “transformation” targets.
The government has even appointed a team of expert German and Chinese consultants to help us figure out what is wrong with Eskom. As if we don’t have engineers available and as if Eskom doesn’t know that the coal fleet isn’t being maintained.
Although some of the solutions might in theory end load shedding, none of them speaks to the elephant in the room, that is that Eskom has no adequate budget allocated for maintenance and, therefore, is actively being prevented by its board from solving load shedding.
The policy of the National Treasury, minister of electricity, minister of minerals and energy and Eskom’s board (whoever is making the decision) should be straightforward:
– Scrap the ridiculous environmental regulations.
– Put any policy that doesn’t speak to ending load shedding aside (such as breaking up Eskom).
– Audit the broken power stations.
– Improve the quality of the coal being burnt.
– Approve a maintenance budget.
– Focus on fixing and repairing 16GW of units that are out of service.
– Upgrade the older stations, if necessary, to high efficiency low emissions coal.
– Listen to the South African engineers and not the activists and conflicted think tanks.
– Simultaneously expand private generation with developers, and not the taxpayer, paying for the integration costs.
When someone is brought into a hospital and they are constantly bleeding, the doctor doesn’t see if they need to take out their appendix; the doctor stops the bleeding.
Eskom should fix the coal situation or South Africa will face a potential bloody revolution.
Hügo Krüger is a YouTube podcaster, writer and civil nuclear engineer who has worked on a variety of energy-related infrastructure projects, ranging from Nuclear Power, LNG and Renewable Technologies.
* The views in this column are independent of Business Report and Independent Media.