Greetings from Durban, South Africa, where it can get very hot and humid (apparently 44 degrees and 80% humidity on Christmas, although I wasn’t here for that) and the thunderstorms are pretty impressive (fork lightning is badass).

John P Durban
The long Durban beachfront. In the distance, you can see the stadium built for the 2010 Fifa World Cup – it’s achieved the holy grail for stadiums, covering its ongoing operating costs

Naturally occurring electricity is one thing, but the manmade power grid is another. South Africa’s power supply is currently going through the biggest disruption for a number of years, with “load shedding” across the country – rolling power cuts, affecting anyone who hasn’t got a backup generator (and many of the wealthier households do). The state-owned power company, Eskom, is cutting off power to entire suburbs or cities at a time, trying to prevent a devastating national blackout where no one can get electricity at all:

Eskom’s Andrew Etzinger says the power cuts are necessary to avoid a countrywide blackout.

“The worst case scenario is a national blackout which we seen in other countries over the last couple of years which happens when the entire grid is lost and no customers are supplied.”

He said if that happened in South Africa, it would take around two weeks to restart the grid while the entire country is remains in darkness.

How did things get to this stage? Again according to Eskom, “over-burdened power plants, the neglecting of refurbishing infrastructure, poor coal quality, heavy rains and an over-reliance on diesel are among the reasons for South Africa’s current power crisis” – pretty wide-ranging there, and presumably most of the fault lies with Eskom itself, or with the government. Eskom do go into more detail on their current problems in that article, making it a good place to start for more information (also another article here). President Zuma, on the other hand, has pointed the finger at apartheid:

South Africa’s energy problems were a product of apartheid and government was not to blame for the current blackouts, President Jacob Zumasaid on Friday.

“The problem [is] the energy was structured racially to serve a particular race, not the majority,” Zuma told delegates at the Young Communist League’s congress in Cape Town.

He said the ANC had inherited the power utility from the previous regime which had only provided electricity to the white minority.

Twenty years into democracy, 11 million households had access to electricity, double the number in 1994.

While everything from the second paragraph onwards is obviously true, it’s facile to blame a system which ended 20 years ago, especially given the various failures which Eskom have acknowledged. Electricity is an indispensable part of modern living, and an unpredictable supply can lead to all sorts of other issues for households and businesses.

Anyway, it does make you take stock and think again how lucky we are to live in New Zealand, where electricity is reliable and affordable (not to mention mainly renewable), and the market system appears to work reasonably well.

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  1. So no real takeup of electric cars (or electric trains) there I guess?

    Although, with a lot of Vehicle to Grid technology, coupled with distributed (local) generation, SA could become the poster boy for smart grid technology in the next decade if the party in power stopped being so damn corrupt.

    And you know our electricity grid didn’t just happen overnight either, it took time to build the grid and the generation, mostly post WWII.
    But in the late 40’s we had major power problems too, so electricity became the think big of its day, and it actually delivered what it promised.

  2. A country generally gets the utility service it is willing to pay for. If utility is unable to go to a stock market for additional capital then the utility has to generate sufficient profits from customers to provide the cash required to build new generation and transmission capacity. This requires price increases which are politically unpopular. In NZ we have accepted these increases and so have avoided shortages.

    1. Except NZ Inc accepted that the Electricity Grid and generation plants were public goods, whereas the power used by users was a user pays (although setting power prices was ultimately a politically made decision for decades).

      In SA they don’t even have a basic grid going to everyone so even if those masses wanted to buy power they can’t get it.

      I doubt that privatising the power system will help much right now, what is needed is lots of generation capacity and a society willing to pay a fair price for it.
      South Africa could lead in renewables if the government chose that path (e.g. Solar, Wind) and kept the coal plants and diesel ones as peaking capacity.

      1. The ownership of a Utility is not that important. The capital for expansion still has to be found from somewhere, and if provided by the taxpayer, the taxpayer generally expects a return (dividend). The issue comes down to the difference between what users consider “fair price” and what is required to fund the generation and distribution network. If there is no surplus, the system starts to fail.

        1. “if provided by the taxpayer, the taxpayer generally expects a return (dividend).”

          There are dividends other than “cash” that such investments can return. e.g. if the SA Government decides that access to electricity is a goal it can “subsidise” the cost of the grid and/or the cost of the electricity.
          As a form of social good.

          I suspect that the electricity price is not priced to reflect its true costs of production. Indeed if SA is using coal and diesel to power its grid, it must have very expensive electricity as a result.

          And if the price is not fair, thats because the government is selling it below the cost of production for reasons it has decided..

          While this hardly makes economic sense no matter how you look at it, it may make sense in other measures. But at the end of the day it is a political decision that has been made.

        2. It is fine for a government to subsidize the grid, but unless that subsidy is in the form of cash, the utility soon runs short of funds to build new additions to their grid, or even maintain what they have. This happens in many Asian and African countries. Utilities in these countries also often suffer from illegal connections which further increases their losses.

  3. Greg – there is a reasonable electric commuter rail service in SA’s main centres, notably Jo’burg and Cape Town. However IIRC there are crime problems on the trains, except maybe on the new Gautrain. Also some electrified freight lines IIRC, there is lots on Wiki etc. if you’re keen to know more.

    The ANC’s default position on any sort of problem seems to be to blame the former regime. While apartheid was undoubtedly an abhorrent system that produced gross inequalities (access to electricity being only one) the ANC has had twenty years to make a difference. If twenty is not enough, then what? Thirty? Forty? SA is an amazing place with wonderful potential, one despairs at the lack of progress given that potential.

    Greg’s point about renewables is a good one though – SA has plenty of sunlight and wind available to harness (just to start with). It could be a test bed for new technologies – clean energy entrepreneurs should be rushing to fill the supply shortage with innovations. That the shortages are happening (and have been for some years) can only be a failure of leadership.

    1. I was thinking if they don’t use a lot of (or have a lot of use for) EMUs – well we will shortly have a whole fleet of diesel DMUs and (maybe) diesel hauled SA sets that we could sell them for a nice price 🙂

      “While apartheid was undoubtedly an abhorrent system that produced gross inequalities (access to electricity being only one) the ANC has had twenty years to make a difference.”

      Exactly, and they’ve not exactly covered themselves in a lot of glory there!

    2. Electric trains run in Durban too… something like 230 million rail passengers a year across South Africa, apparently.
      The Gautrain in Joburg has only been around for five years, I assume it was progressed as part of the infrastructure for the World Cup?

  4. Drove from J’burg to the Safari parks in November last year and there were multiple coal fired plants dotted along the way spewing carbon into the atmosphere. Coal accounts for 75% of power generation in SA with nuclear 5%

  5. The Gautrain was a big surprise when i first heard about it – I grew up in Johannesburg and I’d never seen a bus on the road (except for school trips) and the trains in the Cape were ‘too dangerous’ so I never caught one when I was there a few years back. Early stages but infrastructure is infrastructure. Even more surprising was the quality of the roads in the Cape (including Northern, a huge area with barely any people) – for a place with incredibly low proportion of tax payers (as in > 10% of the population pays any tax), the roads are still in incredibly good shape – NZ seems to blow a lot of money on roads that just don’t seem to last.

    Eskom’s current problems have nothing to do with Apartheid, no matter how you try to spin it. It’s not where the stations are delivering power, it’s that they are at capacity. It stems back to a complete lack of capacity planning in the 90’s and 00’s – no new plants and the bare minimum maintenance. The first signs were Koeberg (nuclear) in 2005 in the cape (widespread blackouts there for a long time). 2008 was the big one, major issues – work was finally commissioned for new stations. Up until that point, all profits were siphoned off to the governnment. There are the usual controversies around how the contracts were awarded. The result is that everything is running late.

    I always laugh at people who complain that New Zealand has ‘third world’ anything (electricity grid, roading, public transport (ok maybe that one we can sympathise with 😉 ))…

    It’s frustrating to see the leadership deteriorate with every passing election, still blaming everything on Apartheid and constant degradation of education. But that’s how they get their votes. It’s a beautiful place but very, very frustrating to watch from afar, let alone live in. Always remember when reading about South Africa that there is little said that is not tinged with some bias or agenda – there is still rampant racism (online forums are particularly harrowing at times, in both directions), lack of media transparency (read up on SABC leadership appointments) and accusations or corruption around everything (cynical, but often correct, unfortunately). If you’re ever interested, the Mail & Guardian is a pretty good paper, I guess liberal, but holds things to account and is often ‘in trouble’ for reporting of certain facts (gold star!). Of course you shouldn’t take anything I say as fact, I’m just a racist yarpie 🙂

  6. The ANC inherited a lot of debt which was mainly used to keep the coloured population under control. Servicing that debt has greatly reduced the Governments ability to proceed with their intentions to provide a more egalitarian society. It is unfortunate that the same Corporate activity that emanates from US/Chicago school of economics is used as the basis to try and improve the country. It’s the same economic principles that were used in the Latin American countries and it is unlikely to work in meeting the goals of a more equal society.

  7. Huge problem. Giving people of even modest means access to the grid is going to devastate it for a generation. You accept people who had no access to electricity before, and they buy, cheaply, air-conditioners. A private spend of $600 needs a public spend of $16000 to provide the grid capacity to supply. In New Zealand post WWII it took at least twelve years to establish a secure (power cut free) power supply. Only when Roxburgh was commissioned did the South Island have its lights switched on permanently. And we only had first world problems.

    Helen Clark’s last government tried to make builders of opulent houses more responsible for their own hot water heating demands, and suffered the consequences. Now the world is getting the message, and for the first time, in 2014, renewables are outcompeting fossil fuel generation.

    So there is no market enthusiasm for any major investment in non-renewable generation facilities, and really no investors in sight other than the state for renewables. can anyone suggest how a free market solution might work?

  8. The Vietnamese government reported in November that coal supply problems would make electricity supply less reliable. You can’t blame local neo-liberal policies there.
    Third world countries and New Zealand all need a positive policy on locally generated sustainable electricity. Supporting solar generation would appear to be the quick solution for both Vietnam and South Africa, at least during daylight hours,

  9. Further about Vietnam and specifically a transport comment. Hanoi with a population of 2.6 million in the metropolitan limits and 6.6 million more in the surrounding district has 13 trains leaving the main rail station each day. THIRTEEN. (Sure a couple more leave from the other side of the rail yard heading north to China). The railway station is dead between 6.10 am and 3,25 pm. There is no commuter traffic by rail!
    If you want to find out why motorcycle transport isn’t the most efficient mode of transport when used by most of a city’s population, go and try to cross a street in downtown Hanoi. This is a city that Len Brown could really clean up!

    1. Solar may be cheaper than running a diesel generator, but as you still have to buy the generator for cloudy days and evenings, probably not if the diesel fuel carries no tax.

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