Eskom: Good news?

On fairly regular occasions on this blog, we have taken the pi… we have taken the mickey out of state-owned electricity generating behemoth, Eskom. You can look here for most all of those posts.

But, credit where it is due, it does seem like Brian Molefe has begun some sort of turnaround at the much maligned power utility. There was a very positive – if characteristically honest – press conference this morning, at which these lines were uttered:

We don’t foresee load-shedding for the year unless something goes terribly wrong, but it is still conceivable because we are not out of the woods yet.

Fair enough – and they’ve done well right over summer (the last loadshedding was on 14th September 2015), so who’s to say that it might not continue through winter too – especially with new projects coming online as well:

The successful synchronisation of unit three of the R25bn Ingula hydro pump storage scheme to the grid last week will add 333MW, reducing pressure on the grid and allowing Eskom to undertake its maintenance programme.

Ingula is basically a huge version of the Steenbras pumped-storage scheme, which saved Cape Town from loadshedding on several occasions last winter.
In fact, the future’s so bright, we may have to wear some sort of eye protection:

Mr Molefe said Eskom was working very hard to conclude its construction of the Medupe and Kusile power stations ahead of target. The two power stations and Ingula will add about 11,000MW to the grid on completion of them all in about five years’ time.
On completion, he said, SA would have enough electricity for economic growth and perhaps even a surplus to sell to its neighbours.

A surplus? Blimey.

Of course, there are still uncertainties – like the fact that there’s not ever so much water to run through the Ingula turbines at the moment, and like the vicious circle of the crappy economy caused by the shortage of electricity meaning that Eskom will have to pay more for its loans, meaning that prices will have to go up (again) or less maintenance and building will be possible.

But generally, better – right?

UPDATE: Here’s an alternative view though:

The improved outlook is less about what the state power utility is doing and more to do with an economic slowdown.

OK, that’s not great. But still… no loadshedding, right? #GlassHalfFull

Keeping The Lights On

One of the benefits of being over in the UK recently was that I was able to pick up the latest copy of Private Eye magazine. I used to be a subscriber, but found that the postal delay rendered much of the content dated and irrelevant. If ever there was a case for a publication having a digital edition, Private Eye are it. Topical satire simply doesn’t age well.

But I digress. Often.

There was a column in it written by ‘Old Sparky’, entitled “Keeping The Lights On”. It was very interesting to read it as a SA resident. It’s probably a bit long to add into a blog post, to be honest, but I’ve never been one to abide by the petty unwritten rules around blogging, so here is it, in its entirety – I’ll see you for more comment on the other side:

WHEN the authorities make contingency plans against predictable disasters, we all applaud their foresight. Which catastrophes they are thinking about, however, can be revealing and give cause for concern; and right now the government is working on the possibility of a five-day nationwide power blackout – putting all its breezy denials of the lights going out into perspective.

As frequently noted here, energy policy since the dreadful Energy Act 2008 has resulted in the safety margin between reliable electricity generating capacity and peak demand becoming progressively and dangerously tighter. A 20 percent margin would be considered comfortable; but this winter it will only be 1.2 percent – down from 4.1 percent last year – before the National Grid takes special short-term measures.

Homes and hospitals
The grid has recently been bolstering its emergency resources with banks of diesel generators and the right to switch off industrial customers. Publicly the government always insists “the lights will stay on” – in homes and hospitals, that is. But it’s a costly, third-world way to run a grid in a supposedly advanced economy: and now we know they obviously don’t think it is guaranteed to work.

Papers seen by Private Eye indicate that the Cabinet Office and Treasury combined are planning for a scenario in which there is a five-day nationwide blackout with only small stand-by generators working. The detailed consequences they envisage include:

  • No landline telephones available to businesses or homes
  • Mobile phones with voice-only service (not data)
  • No street lights, traffic lights or public transport
  • Two-thirds of petrol stations closed
  • Shops open only sporadically and unreliably
  • ATMs unavailable, with cash running out fast

This would most probably happen in winter. It goes without saying that such a situation would also bring about ghastly accidents and loss of life, with the emergency services much constrained in their ability to cope. The implications for industry, commerce and public order are grim, too. If it’s any comfort, the German authorities – based on their own crazy energy policy – are looking at very similar scenarios.

With all this at stake, as prudent as it may be to plan for potential calamities, it would surely have been better to render the blackout scenario redundant by properly ensuring security of electricity supply. The current combination of intermittent wind farms, ageing nukes, fast-closing coal-fired power stations and mothballed gas-fired plants doesn’t do that: and privately the government knows it.

Yeah. We think that SA is the only one with problems like these. But there’s a real danger that the UK could experience some form of load-shedding this winter as well. (Regular readers shouldn’t find this news surprising.)

When similar ‘disaster’ plans made by Eskom and the SA Government became public knowledge, there was considerable disquiet and some small degree of panic (probably mainly thanks to scaremongering headlines). Sales of tinned goods reached heights not seen since 1994 and we all waiting to be plunged into dark, apocalyptic anarchy.

It didn’t happen.

Yet.

SA signed up (or didn’t sign up, depending on whom you choose to believe) for 4 new nuclear power stations, designed and supplied and ostensibly run by a foreign power – Russia. (Ironically, the UK has pretty much done the same thing with China and France.)

The cost of this SA/Ruskie venture? A tidy One Trillion Rands. It’s a lot of money, but the issues are not specifically around the cost, but (as you will read here) mainly around the safety of nuclear power stations and the potential for widespread corruption. Thing is though, the safety issue isn’t actually an issue – one only has to look at the still completely unexploded Koeberg Power Station to see that. And the corruption thing, while entirely valid, has got very little to do with this specific deal, and would be a problem no matter what large scale civil engineering project was being undertaken, and by whomever. That’s how these things work in SA. It’s sad, but it’s true.
So your plans for a ‘super clean’, ridiculously big, massively inefficient solar plant would attract the same problem. Your unpretty, flying thing killing, massively inefficient wind turbine plan will also be loaded with backhanders. But Greenpeace will probably choose to ignore that.

Large scale projects are expensive. Producing electricity is expensive. It’s something we have to accept though, because these are things that we need. People with trendy, fleetingly zeitgeist ideas like diverting that Trillion Rand to tertiary education are missing the rather obvious point that without some form of generating more electricity, there will be nothing for their newly graduated thousands to do in an economy that’s lying in small bits and pieces all over the bottom of Africa.
Yes, of course this situation could definitely have been better managed – it could still be better managed – but we need to do something, because otherwise we’re going to end up implementing that Eskom blackout plan.
And that is not a road we want to be going down.

PDF of the Private Eye article.

QsOTD

Quotes Of The Day – yes – plural. Like London buses, these things.

First off, some succinctly put insight into the world of the fad diet and the public reaction to it:

Nutrition is a complex minefield of information with plenty of vested interests playing their part. There is also a lot of legacy popular thinking around (read: stuff people just accept without any critical thinking).

That’s Joe Botha, speaking sense at Memeburn. Sadly, immediately thereafter, he does rather ruin it all by detailing his “lose weight quick” plan based on the enforced dietary timetable of our distant ancestors. (Save your time and bandwidth.) But, in typical Tim style, I’m going to take those lines (and only those lines) that suit my agenda and quote them here.

And then this from Australia’s Galileo Movement on Stellenbosch University’s latest breakthrough in renewable energy:

The industrialisation of our landscape for inefficient power production.

And yes, this is exactly the issue with solar and wind power right now. I know we need to make the switch away from fossil fuels, I completely accept that. But right now, there are simply no viable renewable alternatives out there:

The issue is the inefficiency of these technologies. And exactly how much space and how much of our environment do we really want to give up to this “inefficient power production”? Yes, SA has a lot of spare space, but that’s a good thing. It doesn’t mean that we need to fill it with solar panels and wind turbines.

aeg-power-solutions

And we’d need to, if we were to come anywhere close to solving our well-documented long term power shortages. That Stellenbosch project needs a mirror surface area of 220m² (never mind the space in between and around them, nor the same for the tower in the middle) to provide electricity for “about” 30 houses. But not at night, obviously.

Simply not good enough.

I’m not blaming the science or the scientists here. They’re doing their best. They’re progressing, developing, and they’ll get there. But renewable energy remains expensive:

The researchers have calculated Germany’s rapid switch to renewable energy sources like wind and solar is adding another €28 billion a year to the electricity bills of consumers and businesses.

And inefficient:

What happens at night?
As there is no light at night, no energy will be produced. The PV plant will import electricity from the utility to keep operations on site going.

Ooops. The simple fact is that we’re just not there yet.
And that’s why we can’t (and shouldn’t) be making the switch right now.

If only there were some clean, efficient, proven method of producing electricity that we could use.

June loadshedding rumours aren’t true

Eskom has let us know that the message spreading on social media (basically Facebook), that there will be twice daily routine loadshedding from next week, isn’t true:

e1 e2 e3

Several keyboard warriors individuals replied to these tweets with swearing and insults, the combination of which cut the nation’s power usage by 10% and assisted hugely with hastening the completion of the Medupi Power Station, thus negating the need for any loadshedding whatsoever.

Jokes. It didn’t really. Angrily typing some crap on your keyboard and sending it to a public relations lady sitting at a keyboard somewhere else doesn’t actually save electricity or speed up infrastructure provision.

But do keep trying, won’t you? It’s such fun to watch.

Short

A quick post about our current predicaments:

There’s not enough electricity to go around. This is actually very old news, although South Africans continue to complain about it while doing nothing to save the damn stuff when they have it. It’s clear that generally, despite their lack of action to combat the problem, people are very unhappy about it.

The alternative, of course, is gas. We don’t have it plumbed to our houses here in SA like some other countries I’ve lived in, so it comes in big bottles. Well, it would if there wasn’t a shortage of it:

Dear Customers,
As you may have heard through the media, LP gas is currently in short supply in South Africa as a result of planned maintenance on a few of the major refineries in the country.
Please take the time to read the attached letter regarding the LP gas supply issues we are currently experiencing.

I’ll spare you the attached letter, which basically says there’s a shortage of gas, resulting in “unavoidable price increases”. Supply and demand etc etc. People are not going to be happy.

Anecdotally (hey, it works for Prof Tim), there’s also a shortage of diesel in Cape Town. My car doesn’t run on diesel. Mrs 6000’s car does run on diesel – when she can find some to put in it. Same with lorries delivering food and goods all over the country. Less diesel, higher demand, higher prices (although they are somewhat regulated in SA) = unhappy people.

And now, arguably the most serious of all, we have a shortage of water. Figures due to be released this morning will almost certainly indicate that the reservoirs supplying Cape Town are now less than half full. That’s not good, but ironically, it’s less than half the problem as well. The bigger issue is that it’s also not raining on the local farms:

A drought that has probably reduced South Africa’s corn crop for 2015 to the smallest in eight years is also putting at least half the country’s wheat harvest at risk, the largest grain farmers’ lobby said.
Farms in the Western Cape have had little or no rain since the start of the planting season in April and need showers before the end of May, Andries Theron, vice chairman of Grain SA, told reporters Thursday at an agricultural show in Bothaville.

The province, whose wheat fields are rain-fed, produces about 50% of the nation’s harvest of the cereal, data from the Grain Information Service show.
“We started planting in dry soil,” he said. “Usually, our rainy season would start in the middle of April, but it didn’t. We’ve got a hectic season on hand.”

And then this, from Agri Wes-Cape’s CEO Carl Opperman:

“This has been the driest summer the province has seen in many years. Rains that should have already fallen are desperately needed, especially by grain farmers.
“It’s a dry circle that we’ve got at the moment. We will be managing it, so we’re expecting rain in the future. It’s most probably going to be what we call ‘a dry winter'”.

Come now, Carl – drop the technical terminology, can’t you? You’re unnecessarily baffling us with bullshit there. Is there really no language you could have used so that us laypersons could understand?

Looking at the forecast for the coming week, our local grain farmers are going to remain disappointed.

And so… guess what? Less grain supply, no reduction in demand = higher prices. And that means unhappy people.

I’ve never been convinced that a single straw could break a camel’s back. But several big fat straws? Well, maybe we’re in for interesting times ahead.