Eskom is a junkie trying to get its next fix

My solution to the current Eskom problem is to halt all construction at Medupi and Kusile, and then adopt a “use-what-we-have” policy until we call the engineers behind the poor designs to task. But, like all things involving the embattled power utility, it’s not that simple.

Unlike the popular Trumpian understanding of the term, the “clean coal” referred to when referencing these dry-cooled power plants is not about the coal or carbon emissions at all. Medupi alone will cough some 25-million tons of carbon into the atmosphere annually and that’s not mentioning other pollutants like sulphur dioxide. The clean of these dry-cooled plants come mainly from its minimal water use – about 100ml/kWh compared to the two litres used in conventional coal-fired plants.

South Africa isn’t particularly water secure, so any savings are welcome. There’s also the case of about 7 000 jobs at this point (down from the initial 18 000) that the unions are shouting about. But these are the same unions that don’t propose any training programmes to help at least some of the members transition into a world without coal. The craziest thing, though, is that this is almost history repeating itself.

In 1983 Eskom was in a crisis. A severe drought was causing rolling blackouts and the economics the utility was founded on wasn’t a great fit for the economic environment of the time. Tariff increases were on the cards and the expensive construction of Matimba, Majuba and the then gigantic Kendal power plants was seen as unnecessary. A forecast demand growth of seven per cent per year (serving a measly 13 per cent of the population) meant a doubling of capacity every decade.

Kendal, at the time it went online, was the biggest dry-cooled coal-fired power station on the planet. Koeberg is also the biggest nuclear power station in the southern hemisphere, the southern-most reactor and the only one on the continent. It’s astonishing then, that in the decades following Kendal and Koeberg’s construction, so little was done to increase output. Thabo Mbeki wanted to diversify South Africa’s energy landscape and even proposed the idea of privatising parts of Eskom in his tenure as deputy president.

So now you have an intersection of a country obsessed with leading the world in a technology that’s proven problematic and unsustainable – cheap coal isn’t that cheap anymore and mining is constantly being disrupted by union action – and a faction within the government that identified an opportunity for self-enrichment. The only logical way out is to sell Eskom to the highest bidder, but that will mean steep tariff increases and massive job losses. This scenario would bring South Africa to its knees in a brutal civil war.

While I have been preaching that a bit of Thatcherism is due for the Rainbow Nation, it is also true that our complex problems need multi-faceted solutions. The misconception is that South Africa is following China’s lead with our coal-based practises. China has the world’s biggest power plant and its of the run of river hydro flavour. Wind recently overtook coal in the UK energy economy. Wind, however, and its similar to coal sub-50 percent efficiency is not the answer for our country. Solar also isn’t the answer right now, the Touwsrivier concentrator PV project is also the second-largest of its kind in the world.

It definitely seems like turtles all the way down for the Eskom conundrum. Opposition parties firmly believe in handing our energy needs to the independent power producers, but that politicking is also simply a ploy to get more renewable energy investment into its province. Our love-affair with coal has lead us down an uncertain path and courting the promise of green energy is a lovely story to tell the voting public, but not a viable option to power the nation in the short term. The unions are actively spreading misinformation among its ranks to cling to the little power that coal gives them at the bargaining table. Medupi, at least, is the only way out of this mess, for now.

 

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