The energy crisis in South Africa has prompted continued calls for government action, and officials in January said an energy action plan announced last year is starting to be implemented. The plan was laid out by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa a year ago, and designed with a long-term goal of securing a reliable supply of electricity for the country. The country’s central bank recently said the energy situation is costing South Africa $51 million each day there is power rationing, with 250 days of blackouts expected this year—representing a nearly $13 billion hit to the economy.
Mondli Gungubele, a government minister, at a news conference in late January said, “There is no immediate panacea to this crisis,” which has become a critical issue as power utility Eskom has implemented stage 7 load-shedding—removing more than 7 GW of electricity from the national grid to prevent it from collapsing, by cutting power to different parts of the country at various times. It also is developing a plan for stage 8 cuts to the power system.
Load-shedding, accomplished through a series of rolling blackouts, has been part of South Africa’s power grid since 2007. Gungubele, though, said the government is working to “ensure full and effective implementation of the Energy Action Plan,” even as Johannesburg residents continue to live with blackouts occurring for hours at a time, as often as three times each day. Officials said a stage 8 situation would mean people could be without electricity for up to 14 hours a day.
Eskom reported that more than 23 GW of generation was offline as of Feb. 28, with more than 19 GW out of service due to unplanned breakdowns, and another 4.2 GW down for planned maintenance. Government data shows South Africa has about 54 GW of installed power generation capacity.
Eskom in a statement in late January said the utility “is making every effort to reduce the duration of these outages as much as possible. Although the stages of load-shedding have been high, and for extended periods, this does not indicate that the power system is approaching a blackout,” it said. “In fact, load-shedding is implemented to ensure the appropriate reserve margins are maintained to manage the risk of a blackout. Therefore, there is no higher risk of a blackout than normal.”
“Like the COVID-19 pandemic, the current energy crisis raises the necessity for a societal response,” said Gungubele. “All parts of society need to pull together and play their respective roles if we are to overcome the electricity crisis.” The minister added, “The energy crisis we are facing is not unique to South Africa. There is currently a global energy crisis, and therefore we must work together to address the crisis.” Load-shedding by Eskom has gotten worse in recent years, with officials saying 2022 was the worst year ever for blackouts, and with load-shedding occurring on every day so far this year at least through early February.
Most of South Africa’s electricity—nearly 80%—is produced at coal-fired power plants, with much of the rest generated by facilities burning oil and diesel, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. About 5% of the country’s power comes from two reactors at the Koeberg nuclear power station, with the rest generated by renewable power resources.
Ramaphosa at a late January meeting with senior officials of his African National Congress party said the coal-rich country must transition to more renewable energy, but said it can’t immediately abandon coal. He noted existence of “the perception that we are called upon to make a tradeoff between energy security and a just transition to a low-carbon economy,” and said the country does not have to make “a choice between coal and renewable energy.” The president said, “Our energy architecture is 80% coal-powered, [and] there is just no way we are going to close those power stations… just like that.”
Ramaphosa said the ongoing energy crisis is due in part to the country’s aging coal plants, which need maintenance. State-funded Eskom also has not had enough money to buy a sufficient quantity of diesel fuel to run emergency generators to produce more power. The country in the past two years has received billions of dollars in international grants and loans, with the money targeted for renewable energy development.
Andre de Ruyter, Eskom’s outgoing CEO, in January said the utility is “paying for the sins of the past” after not signing contracts in 2014 to build more renewable power generation, which he said was contributing to the continued load-shedding. De Ruyter, who submitted a letter of resignation to Eskom officials in mid-December 2022 but will continue in the role into this month, recently said he survived a cyanide poisoning attempt the day after deciding to resign.
1. Eskom in November 2022 said several people were arrested at the coal-fired Camden Power Station (pictured), charged with stealing coal, sabotaging the plant, and committing coal fraud—bringing coal mixed with worthless material to the plant. The utility said some truck drivers were arrested for carrying stolen coal that was to be delivered to Eskom. Courtesy: Eskom
De Ruyter, who became Eskom’s CEO in December 2019, has said some of the problems with South Africa’s power sector stem from what he called endemic corruption that has impacted much of the country’s economy. De Ruyter has repeatedly said he thinks organized gangs have infiltrated Eskom and have been stealing from the company. He also has said he thinks crime syndicates have been taking both spare parts and coal from the company’s power plants (Figure 1), and deliberately sabotaging power stations to win contracts for maintenance and repair work.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen met with South African Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana in Pretoria in late January. Their discussions included ways to move South Africa away from its reliance on coal-fired power and toward more renewable energy resources. Yellen said the U.S., as part of the Biden administration’s commitment to improve relations with African nations, is focused on energy issues on the continent. Ramaphosa—who stayed in South Africa rather than attending the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, due to the energy situation in his country—has said he wants South Africa to begin phasing out some coal-fired generation as part of a target for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“South Africa has been sustaining increasingly frequent blackouts, with 2022 being the worst on record,” said Irina Tsukerman, a geopolitical analyst and president of Scarab Rising, a business advisory company. “In essence, Eskom is a symptom rather than a cause of the ongoing issues. The breakdowns in 11 coal-powered plants just last week [late January] caused Eskom to implement further cuts.”
Tsukerman told POWER that even with the load-shedding outages—in some cases for as long as 12 hours a day in total for various regions—Eskom is still not able to satisfy electricity demand at peak times, which she said could reach as high as 34 GW. “Having one state-funded utility company fully reliant on the government for funding is just a tip of the iceberg,” Tsukerman said. “Dependency on the coal plants and failure to transition to gas or other more sustainable or transitional forms of energy is another significant concern.”
Tsukerman said the U.S., UK, and the European Union “have pledged $8.5 billion to South Africa for energy transition, but even receiving that money will take time and there is no guarantee that that money will not disappear as previous funding has from various projects.” Yellen in public comments during her visit said, “As you know, South Africa is the first country with a just energy transition partnership to which the United States was proud to commit as a partner. This partnership represents South Africa’s bold first step towards expanding electricity access and reliability and creating a low-carbon and climate-resistant economy.”
Gungubele at his news conference said the government has begun relaxing some energy project licensing requirements, to support faster approval of generation projects to enable more private investment. He said 18 “skilled specialists” have been brought back by Eskom, including three former power station managers, to help rebuild the utility’s “technical capacity.” The minister said the government is actively collaborating with external stakeholders that have expressed interest in helping Eskom.
He also said maintenance is being prioritized at the six largest coal-fired plants in the country, including the Kusile station, where three of the plant’s six 800-MW units were taken offline in October 2022 after the collapse of a flue-duct unit. South African media in late January said Eskom officials have been meeting with treasury agents to find funding for needed repairs at Kusile. A source told the Mail & Guardian news service that there is “no quick fix for the chimney because the utility does not have equipment that will hold the chimney upright. The temporary solution will take at least 12 months to build. Importing a ready material that will hold the chimney would be too expensive and we can’t afford it at this time.”
Gungubele, while touting the government’s efforts toward building more power generation infrastructure, said, “These examples of interventions that are underway demonstrate the urgency that is being put into fixing the energy challenges. These cannot be implemented overnight.” The minister said the government wants to enable construction of “substantial” new power generating capacity. “Some of this power will be bought by Eskom through the renewable energy program, which has been expanded and accelerated,” he said.
“In the last six months, agreements have been signed with independent power producers for 26 projects, which together will generate around 2,800 MW. Another major source of new generating capacity will be solar panels on the roofs of houses and businesses. Work will soon be completed on a pricing structure that will allow customers to sell surplus electricity from rooftop solar panels into the grid. That way, they can meet their own power needs and help increase the amount of electricity on the grid,” said Gungubele.
—Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).