A better life means we unite to save power

18 March 2014

Phumla Williams

The wet weather in the past two weeks left some without electricity because of pressure the national electricity grid. That again raised renewed demands for everyone to save electricity.

Simple things like flicking a light switch, plugging in electrical appliances or keeping the geyser on at all times raise the load on the national power grid.

These actions multiplied across millions of households, put strain on electricity-generating capacity in an energy-intensive economy.

Eskom was forced to shut down power in parts of the distribution system to relieve pressure on the grid. It was the first time in six years we had to resort to load shedding to protect the electrical network.

According to Eskom, the heavy rains and failure of generators exacerbated the tight energy situation. This reminds us that electricity is not a limitless commodity and we need to use it wisely.

The power challenges stem from the expansion of the economy and new customers who came on to the grid as a result of basic services being rolled out to previously disadvantaged communities.

Sadly, as in many other emerging economies, supply has not kept pace with demand. The long lead time to establish new power stations made it impossible for extra capacity to come on stream quickly enough to meet the rapid growth in demand for electricity. 

In 1994, only a little more than a third of households had electricity. Many were forced to use inferior and unhealthy fuels. Rural women were burdened with collecting wood. 

We have made significant inroads in the provision of electricity and today millions of previously marginalised are on the grid.

During the launch of the South Africa Twenty Year Review 1994–2014 last week, President Jacob Zuma said: “It is impressive that a number of municipalities which had little or no institutional foundations have been able to deliver basic services to thousands of people who did not have them before.”

The review shows that in less than two decades electricity has been provided to more than 5.8 million households.

Through the national electrification programme, low-income households receive 50kWh of free electricity a month to take care of basic needs.

We have reduced the percentage of households without electricity to 14 percent from about 50 percent in 1994.

In 2009, the World Energy Council noted that in the first five years of the electrification programme a connection was made every 30 seconds, a pole placed in the correct position every 10 seconds and 200m of cable attached every minute.

It commended our programme for increasing access to electricity and improving the population’s quality of life. South Africa is indeed a better place than it was before 1994, as many now enjoy safer and healthier lives with electricity. We are targeting 100 percent connection of households by 2020.

The prospects of maintaining the momentum of electrification are favourable, with the government investing in large power-generation projects. Since 2005, the upgrading of power stations, returning mothballed stations to serve and building new plants has added 6 028 megawatts (MW) to the grid.
Despite this progress, demand for electricity continues to exceed supply.

Two large coal-fired power stations Medupi and Kusile – each able to produce in excess of 4 500 MW, are under construction. Medupi Power Station is the first of its kind in Africa to use some of the most efficient and lowest emission coal-fired technology. It is currently 56 percent complete, while Kusile in Mpumalanga is 24 per cent complete. 

The plans for affordable and cleaner energy are articulated and Integrated Energy Plan. They envisage new generation capacity of 52 248MW over the next 20 years, which will take our total energy generating capacity to 85 241MW in 2030. 

We are focussing on increasing our renewable energy capacity. In 2012 we signed agreements with the private sector to buy 3 941 MW of renewable energy to support the national grid. The Department of Energy is also targeting the installation of 1 million solar water heaters.

The government is committed to meet the country’s energy needs. However, everyone has to become a responsible citizen and conserve energy.

Households can switch off non-essential appliances between 5pm and 9pm. Commercial customers, particularly shopping centres and retail outlets, can make a big difference by switching their air-conditioning temperature levels to 23C.

Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS)