Big problem with Eskom’s grid — South Africa faces 10 more years of power cuts

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) senior energy researcher Monique le Roux says that, given available data, another decade of load-shedding is a possible scenario for South Africa.

“It’s a very difficult question to answer,” Le Roux said in an interview on eNCA.

Le Roux’s conclusion is based on the fact that it would take ten years to execute essential infrastructure projects to upgrade Eskom’s power grid.

Although solar and wind power plants could be built in a fraction of the time, Le Roux explained the grid itself doesn’t have the capacity to bring power from where it’s generated to where it’s needed.

“Unfortunately, those good wind and solar resources are located in provinces — for instance, the Northern, Western, and Eastern Cape — where there isn’t a lot of demand,” she said.

“Those lines that carry the power from the South of the country where the good wind resource is have been completely utilised. They’re running at full capacity.”

Le Roux said that, as a result, it isn’t possible to add more power generation capacity in the South to serve people in the North of South Africa.

“For solar, it’s a bit easier. You can add solar anywhere in the country because the resource is linear throughout most of [South Africa],” she said.

Unfortunately, South Africa’s power demand profile doesn’t match the hours most solar energy is available.

“As people could understand, in the morning and in the evenings, you don’t have good solar resource — and that’s our peak demand periods that need to be served,” said Le Roux.

“It’s going to become increasingly difficult to serve the demand with the renewables that are available and can be connected to the grid.”

As for building batteries to store the electricity generated by solar power plants, Le Roux says the short answer is that relying on them would increase grid costs “enormously”.

Peter Attard Montalto, Intellidex managing director for capital markets

Le Roux’s explanation echoes comments from Intellidex capital markets head Peter Attard Montalto.

Montalto explained that South Africa could not allocate slots for 3.2GW of wind capacity in the sixth renewable independent power producer bid window due to this lack of grid capacity.

“Put simply, there was no grid to connect these projects in the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape,” he said.

“Spare grid capacity that was shown by Eskom at the time of bidding in the two provinces (about 3.8GW) had subsequently (legally and by the rules) been taken instead by private off-taker projects.”

Montalto said the Cape’s transmission grids will remain full until at least 2027.

This raises the question of how the country can move forward with the upcoming bid windows 6.5 and 7, as well as the 6GW of renewable generation and 1GW of battery storage that South Africa must procure each year.

“Deep change is clearly needed, including political and leadership change at the departments of mineral resources and energy, and public enterprises,” stated Montalto.

Eskom total week-on-week energy availability factor (EAF) from 2016 Week 1 to 2022 Week 51. (Data source: Eskom; Graph: EE Business Intelligence)

Le Roux said that the CSIR does not foresee being able to give good news about load-shedding for the next several years.

“It looks like the notion that load-shedding will be gone in two years is definitely not watertight. It does not stand when you look at the energy availability factor of Eskom’s current [power plants],” she said.

“The only possible solution is to build large lines — big infrastructure projects — that you can supply the North of the country,” Le Roux said.

As for the economic impact of load-shedding, Le Roux said if you only look at the cost of unserved energy, South Africa lost around R560 billion in 2022.

This is based on a cost to the country of R87 per kilowatt that’s not supplied.

Le Roux said the figure does not include other costs, such as lost opportunity and the cost to businesses and households of buying backup power systems and other load-shedding mitigation measures.

Now read: All hope is not lost

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Big problem with Eskom’s grid — South Africa faces 10 more years of power cuts