Last weeks “Crossing Continents” on BBC radio 4 was all about the South African energy crisis. South African energy crisis? I know- I’d not heard of it either. The UK is very outward facing as far as its news, but I’d not heard of this at all. There is however a serious problem with the South African electricity supply. Up unto the end of apartheid in 1994 electricity was largely for white people. The new government rightly promised the black majority development such as electricity and clean water and to a very large degree has delivered on these promises. This has meant millions more people having access to electricity. Another cause of the current problem is that South African energy built largely on coal, was very cheap. This attracted in energy intensive industries. So there was a huge increase in demand, but no or little increase in supply. South Africa messed around with the idea of building a 4th generation “pebble bed” reactor but this was abandoned before construction started after protests and enormous cost increases. The ANC government is building two huge coal fired power stations and more pumped storage hydro but all are years behind schedule. There has been a huge increase in PV and wind on the South African grid in 2014, but these are from very low levels. South African electricity is no longer so cheap with very large increases in prices every year. This year a 25% increase was mooted. In the meanwhile there is no spare capacity and so all plant is run without any planned maintenance, making a bad situation worse.
The current South African energy crisis is not good, there are hours of blackouts most days, a lot of social unrest and many people stealing power. Whilst to most people blackouts are inconvenient to some people they are lethal. They make crime worse and prevent development.
The South African energy crisis is not going to be solved in the short term by coal (or possibly even in the medium term given the speed of construction). In any case we need to stop using coal due to climate change. It will only be solved by stopping people stealing power, increasing energy efficiency, a switch to renewables which as we have seen in so many places can be very fast and more energy storage. Lithium batteries could soon be a viable proposition and faster than building more dams. Has one South African come up with what is not a total solution to the South African energy crisis but an interesting idea? This is something for the next post.