There is no ‘silver bullet’ to end load-shedding, and South Africa’s electricity crisis will be with the country for five more years, despite recent deals made with Chinese representatives.
This is the view of energy expert and University of Johannesburg professor Hartmut Winkler, who told eNCA that South Africa’s electricity crisis will not be solved overnight.
“I think what South Africans have to understand is that there is no magic bullet,” he said.
“Many promises have been made, many announcements have been made, but ultimately, all of those things can only help a little bit at a time.”
Winkler’s comments come after the Electricity Minister signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with eight Chinese companies “focused on enhancing South Africa’s energy security through infrastructure and technology development, human capital development, and research, amongst other objectives”.
Through an Exchange of Letters and a resultant Technical Assistance Programme, the Chinese Government will also donate emergency equipment to South Africa.
Under the programme, the first shipment of equipment will include 450 petrol generators, which will be deployed to critical facilities, including hospitals and clinics.
Over the long term, Ramokgopa hopes the agreements will help end load-shedding by transferring skills and technology from the Chinese firms to Eskom, thereby improving the utility’s performance.
However, Winkler warned that this is not a simple solution to the country’s electricity crisis.
“The electricity crisis is of such a nature that no single individual, no single entity or even another country can just come in and fix it overnight. We’re in it for the long haul,” he said.
“I still think that we’re going to have power problems for another five years or so, although hopefully not nearly as severe as now.”
While China has proven its expertise in electricity generation, having reformed its system from coal-intensive to a very large share of renewables, it will not be able to solve South Africa’s challenges as easily.
In addition, Winkler said South Africa already uses a lot of Chinese technology, and he, therefore, believes the change will likely not be as big as some might think.
Rather, Winkler believes South Africa should take a similar approach to China, which largely deregulated its energy sector to allow for private power generation.
South Africa has started this process by allowing for Independent Power Producers and incentivising individuals and households to install solar panels through tax breaks.
However, Winkler believes there is still some way to go regarding deregulation. “We still need to make it much easier to set up new electricity generating capacity,” he said.
“I think what’s made a huge difference – that’s probably why we’re not as badly off this winter as we were six months ago or a year ago – is that there’s been this deregulation in the sense that people can now set up their own facilities at home or in their factories or wherever they happen to be.”
“I think that’s made things a lot easier. Otherwise, I think that we would now be at stage six and not stage three.”
He said all the new solar installed in the last year will only make up for about two stages of load-shedding since they are all rather small and only operate on average for eight hours a day.
“So it just means that to make a real dent, what one probably needs to do is increase the number we’ve got here now tenfold, which is what China has done,” he said.
“They’ve shown the way. They are well ahead of their plans. They have a 2030 plan to reach a very high new solar generating capacity target. They already think they’re going to be finished with that in 2025.”
Since China has achieved so much success in its own energy sector in so little time, Winkler suspects the country is now looking elsewhere in the world for countries where it can establish itself.
The South African government has promised to end load-shedding by 2024, but experts warn that this is unlikely and could simply be false promises to gain favour ahead of the 2024 elections.
President Cyril Ramaphosa and Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi have both made statements in recent months that suggest load-shedding will be over within the next two years.
However, energy experts say this is unrealistic, given the scale of the problem.
The government has said that it is working on a number of solutions to the energy crisis, including building new power plants and investing in renewable energy.
Winkler said although Gauteng is building some solar power stations, they still take time to set up.
“Although solar plants can be built much quicker than coal or nuclear, it will still take 18 months to two years to complete,” he said.
Winkler predicts that the earliest South Africa will see a difference in load-shedding is by the end of next year.
He added that on a national level, load-shedding will persist for far longer than the government predicts.
“People are hoping that the breakdowns at Kusile, which accounts for two stages of load-shedding, will be resolved by the end of the year. I would be surprised if that happens,” he said.
Energy analyst Chris Yelland shares Winkler’s views, saying Ramaphosa’s promises are the words of a politician and not a President.
“This is the type of election talk – with big promises and bold statements – that we have become used to,” he said.
“I would have hoped that the President learned from past experience not to make bold and ill-informed statements.”
In 2019, for example, Ramaphosa promised that there would be no load-shedding over Christmas. However, there was severe load-shedding over the festive season.
“The President needs to be very careful about listening to his advisors. He should not play to the crowd because people take his words seriously.”