How can South Africa overcome its energy supply shortcomings?

In 2007, South Africa experienced scheduled power cuts, also called load shedding, due to insufficient generation capacity. 13 years later, we’re still grappling with the energy crises.

Load shedding disrupts the daily operations of all businesses and the daily activities of millions of South Africans. It comes with harsh consequences that businesses and citizens have to pay the price for. It also severely impacts the country’s economy. That’s why we need urgent solutions to mitigate any further risks. 

Before we tackle solutions that hold the potential to lift us out of this challenge, let’s discuss what led us to the current state of energy supply in South Africa.

What are the causes for the energy supply crisis in SA?

While the energy crisis began and stopped during the period of 2007- 2008, it made a return in 2014 due to a collapsed coal storage silo, a short supply of diesel and water as well as the weather. In addition to that, it was an underlying consequence of a 10-year delay in the completion of two major coal-fired power stations, Medupe and Kusile. These power stations were designed with the primary aim of increasing the electricity generation capacity in the country. 

At the time, more than 20 per cent of South Africa’s electricity-generating capacity ran out of commission. This report explains that the little coal available was often very poor in quality and yielded relatively little energy. “The cold caused an unusually high demand for electricity, and the rain made it more difficult to deliver coal to stations and to keep the coal dry. About 3 700 MW of capacity had already been taken off the system for planned maintenance, and another 5 000 MW were lost as a result of unplanned breakdowns, caused in large part by running the plant too hard with poor quality coal.”

One of the major consequences during that period was that the country’s international image was severely damaged. This reduced the country’s ability to attract investment and, therefore, to achieve economic growth targets.

The energy supply challenge has persisted since, with more technical difficulties coming to the fore. In 2018, South Africa’s main energy supplier revealed that the blackouts resulted from the underperformance of the two major plants, Medupe and Kusile. This article explains the list of these identified technical and design difficulties, including the boiler spray systems being unable to cope, milling plants failing to meet technical requirements, gas air heater performance and fouling not meeting technical requirements and more. 

This ongoing crisis is projected to continue for the next five years if we do not seek alternative methods for solving the poor energy supply in South Africa.

What are the potential solutions to the electricity crisis in South Africa?

An alternative solution that could lift South Africa from this crisis is the adoption of clean energy. What is clean energy? It refers to energy generated from renewable sources such as solar, wind, biomass etc. 

These sources are considered more sustainable energy sources, and most importantly, they do not pose a threat to the environment. According to this article, Africa’s conditions are favourable for solar energy; however, the continent’s solar industry accounts for less than 1% of global solar revenues. “Southern Africa has a high irradiation rate (the measure of solar potential) that ranges between 1 500 and 2 000 kilowatt hours (kWh) per year. This indicates that the weather conditions are better suited for solar than the world’s current top solar producers, such as Germany”.

As a development finance institution, it is our responsibility to support the development and funding of various energy generation, transmission and distribution projects. As a leading financier of renewable energy, we are also committed to supporting a just energy transition in Africa.

Our research efforts have led us to the reality that energy demand will double by 2050, making it a priority to start developing and implementing alternative energy solutions. This is why we drive funding for modernising infrastructure in the energy sector. We do this through our various programmes aimed at kickstarting embedded generation renewable energy projects for developing sustainable energy.

Final thoughts

To ensure that South Africa overcomes its energy supply shortcomings, we need to look and invest in other alternatives that promise a longevity of energy supply. As the DBSA, we’re committed to facilitating this move to lift South Africa and other African countries out of continuous blackouts and ensure a pathway for economic growth.