There is much scepticism about the ability of Eskom to deploy the grid capacity needed to unlock the 30 GW of new, mostly renewable, generation capacity that has to be introduced into the network over the coming ten years so as to ensure security of supply as some coal plants are decommissioned.
The problem is not with the plan itself, which is detailed in the latest edition of the rolling Transmission Development Plan (TDP) and covers the period from 2022 to 2031.
The TDP, correctly, envisages the roll-out of 8 406 km of new transmission lines over the period, as well as the introduction of 119 large transformers, to introduce 58 970 MVA of transformer capacity.
It also rightly assumes that the bulk of the expenditure, or R144-billion, will have to be directed the way of expansion projects, with the balance used for network strengthening.
Such an expansion is crucial to facilitate the southward migration of the country’s generation assets, which currently reside in the north-east of the country, and to unleash the transition from coal to renewable energy.
This migration is necessary to take full advantage of South Africa’s world-class solar and wind resources, which are most potent – and will therefore yield the lowest-cost electricity – in the Northern Cape, the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape provinces.
Where genuine concern arises, however, is in the area of implementation.
To understand this concern, one has to grasp the scale of the undertaking outlined in the TDP and the pace at which Eskom would have to act.
The utility has indicated that it has the funding in hand to build the 2 598 km of new lines and deploy the 35 new transformer units that will be required between 2022 and 2026.
To adhere to that timeframe, however, Eskom will have to increase its line construction – relative to what was built in the five years from 2017 to 2021 – by 73% and accelerate its deployment of transformers by 94%.
In the five years to 2021, Eskom managed to introduce new lines at a yearly pace of only 300 km, a yearly clip that would have to accelerate to at least 500 km in the coming five-year period to meet the TDP schedule.
The challenge does not end there, though.
In the subsequent five-year period to 2031, the TDP envisages 5 800 km of new lines and 84 large new transformer units being introduced, representing a 124% increase in line construction and a 140% increase in transformer units.
This all in a context of little or no funding visibility and ongoing delays in securing the servitudes required for the new lines.
Does Eskom truly have the financial and project management capacity to deliver the TDP? And can the weakened domestic manufacturing and construction supply chains respond in time?
The short answer to both questions is no!
The long answer is yes, but only if Eskom receives significant support from government, international funders and the private sector.