It’s beyond maddening that it has taken 15 years for government to respond with any real sense of purpose to the intensifying and increasingly debilitating load-shedding crisis.
Doubly so, given that there have been persistent warnings over the period that, despite zero to negative demand growth, more capacity was urgently required to accommodate Eskom’s build- programme delays and upcoming unit decommissioning, as well as much-needed coal plant maintenance to arrest the decline in the fleet’s energy availability factor.
Instead of responding with such single-minded determination, government either bungled its response or became a deliberate obstacle in the way of change.
It took years to update the 2010 edition of an Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) that included technologies that were no longer financeable and costs that bore no relation to reality. Government then presided over an illegal seven-year procurement delay on the false pretext of a return to an Eskom generation surplus, watched as Eskom’s debt burden became so unsustainable as to make the utility chronically dependent on taxpayer handouts and did very little, until recently, to change the policy frameworks needed to prepare Eskom and the electricity supply industry for a sustainable future.
True, many of these developments coincided with the toxic State Capture years, when government leaders and Eskom officials were consumed with power plays that had everything to do with grubby enrichment and almost nothing to do with powering the economy and society. A legacy whose long shadow is seen currently in unacceptable acts of sabotage.
However, the frustrations have persisted even after the so-called ‘new dawn’ of 2018.
There have been confusing policy signals, including an irrational holding on to the 2019 edition of the IRP, despite indisputable evidence that a revision was sorely needed.
It took “arm twisting” to finally open the market, and the grid, to distributed generators, which then faced onerous regulatory obstacles that took months to only partially clear.
This administration has also presided over an ‘emergency’ procurement programme that is profoundly flawed and has also failed to re-establish a regular rhythm of renewables procurement, partly because of a local-content approach that has effectively placed the cart before the horse.
In addition, the legislative, regulatory and tariff reforms required to truly enable a sustainable electricity supply industry have progressed at a snail’s pace. To be sure, unless these are addressed, and addressed properly, South Africa will not be able to extricate itself from the crisis in the long term, despite having all the resources and opportunity to turn the energy transition into an employment and growth engine.
The good news, amid all this gloom and frustration, is that the recent Stage 6 load-shedding crisis seems to have helped to focus minds on what can be done realistically to reduce, or even eliminate, load-shedding over the coming two years.
As with everything in South Africa, however, any plan is only as good as its implementation. Failure to implement will not only extend the crisis, but result in an ugly divergence, whereby islands of electricity security are surrounded by dark seas of energy poverty.