Eskom, a South African electric company, is having some serious issues. Arrests have been made over fraud involving millions of dollars. The BBC reports that Eskom has been dealing with mismanagement and corruption scandals that have led to its current serious financial issues. Last week, South Africa experienced the largest power outage in over a decade.
Jan Oberholzer, the COO of Eskom, told City Press News, “Eskom is captured. That’s all. It’s hard to find the right words.” That was as a response to a question he asked himself: “Why have we moved away from methods and recipes over the past ten years that have been successful for decades?”
We regret and sincerely apologise that stage 4 loadshedding will move to Stage 6 loadshedding as from 18:00 today, as a result of a shortage of capacity. This follows a technical problem at Medupi Power Station impacting additional generation supply. https://t.co/Nxo0ltbuee pic.twitter.com/YXdfI0PzrM
— Eskom Hld SOC Ltd (@Eskom_SA) December 9, 2019
“We are the brake preventing the country from moving forward,” he says. “Everything that could go wrong at Eskom on Monday, went wrong.” What he is describing is this: Loadshedding Stage 6. Loadshedding is cutting electricity supply/delivery, when that electricity is still needed, in order to avoid a full blackout. South Africa is known for its rolling blackouts because of its extreme challenges keeping electricity supply and demand matched up.
Stage 6 loadshedding means that Eskom has to shed 6,000 MW of power, as you can see in the chart above. That means that Eskom loses over 40% of its generating capacity, cutting electricity for tens of millions of business and residential consumers.
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We all have views on fossil fuels, coal, and the challenges of being Africa, but I would ask that we stop for a minute and live in the shoes of Jan Oberholzer, COO of Eskimo, South Africa’s utility company
It sure ain’t easy . . .
— JPR007 (@jpr007) December 18, 2019
Jan Oberholzer is the face of this crisis. He is the one who is taking the blows, the one who people take their anger and frustrations out on, since he heads up the company. “After 12 years of neglecting our power stations, our system is unpredictable and unreliable,” he says. Oberholzer explained the red tape fiasco. When something goes wrong, he asks what has failed. The response has been, “ask head office,” which responded that they didn’t know.
This crisis in South Africa just makes me realize how good we really have it in the United States. When the power goes out here, it’s usually because of a natural disaster or someone not paying the bill. In the first case, the utility company works around the clock to make sure we get out power back on quickly.
Having power is something that even some of the poorest Americans take for granted — at least, ones who are not homeless and living on the streets. As an American who is writing about this crisis, I can not relate, but I can understand and have empathy. I remember my first online friend from South Africa. She told me once that she can’t be online all the time because of power outages. She explained that sometimes the country turns off the power. I just didn’t understand why. What we have here in the US is considered a luxury for many others around the world.
Getting back to the situation, Oberholzer has explained that there is no quick fix for their system. They need serious, deep improvements.
“The main cause of the load shedding was not sabotage, or rain or whatever. After 12 years of neglecting our power stations, our system is unpredictable and unreliable. I’m not talking about putting on a band-aid, I mean that real, deep maintenance is required.” — Jan Oberholzer
The development of solar power, wind power, and energy storage is more vital than ever for regions and countries like this. People often throw around the phrase “the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow,” but the sun and wind are actually very predictable. Our data on these has gotten much more robust and analysis and prediction methods highly accurate. Furthermore, solar panels and wind turbines seldom “go down.” The work quite effortlessly, predictably, and reliably. With much wind and solar, a grid gets more reliable and uptime improves. It becomes easier for non-renewable sources (or hydro) to fill in.
“What is urgently needed is more power from somewhere, so Eskom can really repair its battered, middle-aged power stations,” Oberholzer said in the middle of explaining their crisis this week. No other power sources are as quick to install as solar and wind power. If the country urgently needs new electricity generation capacity, money should be pumping into solar and wind power plants yesterday.
Even better, with large utility-scale batteries installed, there is no matching the responsiveness to changes in electricity demand and supply. Batteries can absorb or output electricity almost immediately, much more quickly and precisely than natural gas power plants, let alone coal or nuclear power plants, which take a long time to start up (and a long time to build). South Africa relies far too much on slow-to-respond, old, dirty energy.
South Africa needs a lot more solar power, wind power, and energy storage installed as soon as possible in order to avoid these extreme Stage 6 (or any other stage) loadshedding events and blackouts.
Featured image courtesy Eskom