Crisis? What crisis?

Most South Africans are inconvenienced by power interruptions at some time, and may believe that there is a crisis in the supply of electricity, but are unsure what caused it, where it is, or what can be done about it.

Wikipedia describes a “crisis” as any event that is, or is expected to lead to, an unstable and dangerous situation affecting an individual, group, community, or whole society. It continues, “Crises are deemed to be negative changes in the security, economic, political, societal, or environmental affairs, especially when they occur abruptly, with little or no warning. More loosely, it is a term meaning ‘a testing time’ or an ‘emergency event’.”

Most thinking South Africans will feel that this fairly describes the electricity industry in our country for the past several years. They will point to the fact that even the government has acknowledged this in various ways: in the distribution sector, not least by the fact that we have spend billions of rands in a failed “restructuring” attempt to “fix” the industry; and by the ongoing saga of years of talking about the need to upgrade distribution networks which have past their “sell-by” dates, and the lack of any meaningful rectifying action.

In the generation sector, by the public apology for an error of judgment by government from the then-president after the 2008 load-shedding crunch; and by various ministerial pronouncements in the past year or two on Eskom’s failure to commission new generation capacity on time and within budget.

Lurking in the background is the very real problem of the skyrocketing tariffs and the costs directly related to this now affecting every South African; the horrendous non-payment and energy theft problems; the insidious losses in national revenue pool arising from lost production in most industrial sectors following energy curtailments; the list goes on and on.

Thrown into the mix is the very real problem of pollution coming from many of our power stations and the enormous effort and funding needed to meet international and local emission standards.

So yes, we have a crisis, but what can be done about it?

In the short term those of us in the municipal distribution industry, with a direct responsibility for keeping the lights on to some 60% of the nations homes, must do – and for the most part are doing – everything possible to provide an acceptable supply to our customers in both quality and availability terms.

We design and build our distribution networks to that end and maintain them on restricted budgets with limited staff. While we strive to reach that perfect 100% level it is nevertheless a fact that for about 99,9% of the time the power is on and useable for 99,9% of our consumers.

Certainly it is a crisis if the housewife’s baking is delayed or spoiled by a two hour blackout each year; it is even more of a crisis when a commercial operation cannot trade during that time; and worse still, when a large industry has a process or production batch curtailed or ruined or, even worse, plant damaged. We recognise these problems and are individually doing our best to reduce unplanned outage times to zero.

It is common knowledge that thanks largely to the direct and indirect effects of our country’s unenviable recent social history this “our best” is often carried out under very difficult circumstances. Lack of skills of every type is patently obvious to technical and non-technical people alike, and it is common knowledge that most organisations are critically short of qualified staff.

In the context of local authorities, the severity is illustrated by the fact that there has never been a time when so much work is contracted out and so little “institutional memory” and internal expertise available to operate and maintain systems. While it is not all “doom-and-gloom” and there are numerous pockets of excellence of which we can be rightly proud, we would be foolish to gloss over, or turn a proverbial “blind eye” to, the very serious deficiencies and difficulties which exist.

Couple this with the diversion of large amounts of capital to social upliftment projects, unwieldy procurement process in most municipalities, far too many overall administrative weakness as identified in persistent negative audit reports, endless calls for more statistics and time-consuming reports that often seem to have no bearing on reality, and we have a toxic cocktail of gigantic proportions waiting on the industry’s sidelines.

Beyond of our individual utility operational problems, we need to understand that our industry as a whole was not helped, either technically or economically, by the setback resulting from the government’s recent complete somersault on the restructuring of the distribution industry which consigned REDs to the dustbin of history.

Neither is it helped by the delays caused by the inherently sluggish system now in place to try to find an alternative industry model. One cannot but wonder at the chances of success of such a process when the answer eluded mega-brains, consumed mega-energy of effort and mega-bucks of money spend over the past 14 years and failed. The Electricity Distribution Industry Restructuring Committee (EDIRC – predecessor of EDI Holdings) was appointed in 1999 and we will never know how much time and money has been wasted in this futile exercise.

Nor just how much our creaking systems would have benefitted if the funds had been allocated directly to the most needy network upgrades. If anything speaks of the amazing resilience of our industry it must be the fact that the lights are still burning!

We all know that modern civilisations develop where electricity is available and reliable, so perhaps we need a concerted effort to impress this fact – and the fundamental needs to make it happen – on the public, on business leaders and all layers of government.

We need more strategic public involvement, more regular media “non-sensational” reporting and exposure time. Perhaps if every technical journal highlighted particular problem areas and the solutions on a regular basis the public and the policy-makers would develop a better understanding of the industry at a fundamental level and support the steps necessary for permanent solutions.

The time is ripe for the nation to stop the once-off sensation-seeking attention to the industry – which is invariably characterised by a flurry of knee-jerk stop-gap activity – and support the steps essential to build greater reliability in the entire electricity supply chain.

The right time to act is NOW!

Source: EE Publishers

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Crisis? What crisis?