EskomSePush is a smartphone application for checking load separation schedules

South Africa hopes the private sector can help end Eskom’s energy crisis

Every time South Africa’s state-owned energy monopoly Eskom announces a blackout, it’s a bittersweet moment for Herman Maritz, an app developer that helps users plan for blackouts.

Power outages in Africa’s most industrialized economy, which lasted for more than a decade and are known locally as load shedding, have continued in recent weeks for up to 12 hours a day, adding to the misery for companies that have been dealing with for many years. Long collapse of aging state utility coal plants.

But they also led record numbers of people to EskomSePush, the app — whose name runs on the word for department in Afrikaans — which Maritz and friend Dan Wells co-founded seven years ago.

“I wish I didn’t have to create these features to separate the loads,” said Maritz, a technical engineer who turned to work on the app full time this year. “Hopefully the load separation will be over a month from now, and the jobs won’t be needed.”

South Africa is struggling with a legacy of years of failing to invest in new energy supplies, which has forced Eskom to keep decades-old plants running without proper maintenance. The faltering state utility was left with less than 26,000 MW to meet national demand that peaks at 32,000 MW in the winter – forcing it to cut up to 6,000 MW from the grid at any one time.

Up to 2.4 million daily users logged on to EskomSePush this month as random strikes by Eskom workers in search of higher wages exacerbated the crash and made 2022 the worst year yet for outages, with just under half remaining.

EskomSePush is a popular smartphone app to check load separation schedules

Worsening problems have finally forced President Cyril Ramaphosa to act. Last week he announced a comprehensive plan to recruit the private sector “to urgently add more and more capacity to the network.”

The requirement to obtain a license for power generators, which previously applied to independent projects larger than 100 megawatts, will be removed, allowing mines and other companies to install their own generation capacities of any size. Under the proposals, the country will also double its renewable energy purchases this year to more than 5,000 megawatts.

But, despite Maritz’s hopes, and fears in the ruling African National Congress that an energy crisis will cost the party its post-apartheid hold on the national government in the 2024 elections, it is unlikely that private sector projects will begin to ease the burden on Eskom for some time. .

The actions are “a good plan, especially the removal of the licensing threshold. However, it may take a few years before independent producers can contribute meaningfully to the network,” said independent economist Thabi Liuka. “Building capacity will take some time, but it’s better than doing nothing because most companies are struggling.”

Ramaphosa faces challenges posed by vested interests. Among Eskom’s problems, he blamed “deliberate sabotage by well-organized criminal gangs that destroy utilities and harm our economy,” such as the rampant theft of power plant spare parts.

He is also facing hibernation in his party. Energy Minister Gwede Mantaci has in recent months dismissed complaints that energy procurement is progressing too slowly. “The same people tasked with implementing the new plan are the same ministers who could have implemented these plans all along,” said Lucca.

The ANC strongholds cover the coal mining regions that supply Eskom. Party factions prefer the state’s direction of these resources rather than independent renewable energy sources. Eskom delayed the signing of contracts with renewable energy service providers in 2016, which had the knock-on effect of more procurement rounds.

“There is a history… blocking renewables because you want to protect the gravy train around existing resources,” said Grovey Stein, managing director of Meridian Economics, a consulting firm. “The problem isn’t red tape. It’s political resistance.”

At the end of 2020, South Africa’s renewable capacity was 6,700 megawatts – or about 16 percent of total capacity.

High voltage transmission towers coupled with coal-fired power plant from Eskom

Eskom keeps decades-old power plants running without proper maintenance © Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

Had South Africa bought an additional 5,000 megawatts of solar and wind power supplies between 2016 and 2021, nearly all of the last year’s blackouts could have been avoided, Meridian estimates, which assumes that renewables would have better supported standby power generation. In Eskom from coal.

“We basically lack energy, we don’t lack capacity…Capacity is just a potential to generate energy, and energy is what you can continue to generate.” He added that the Eskom raid “disrupted a system that was already on thin ice.”

In order to operate the support stations, Eskom had already burned about 270 million liters of diesel in the January-May period of this year, before the worst blackout, compared to about 450 million liters in the year until the end of March 2021.

The increasingly frequent power outages in recent weeks have affected South African businesses of all sizes by cutting back on diesel supplies to generators and draining mobile phone tower batteries.

Although South African business leadership welcomes Ramaphosa’s plan as a sign that we are “finally moving in the right direction”, many companies are hedging their bets. MTN, Africa’s largest mobile telecommunications company, is adding to a fleet of more than 2,000 generators to keep the towers running.

While South Africa awaits new investment in energy, running diesel generators and hiring security to guard them is a heavy burden for businesses in an already stagnant economy, Liuka said. “This is money that could have gone elsewhere, to investment or business.”

EskomSePush sells the technology to companies like banks to integrate its app into their systems — like a feature that warns remote workers when the next power outage. A product is also in the works for homeowners who aim to synchronize rooftop solar and batteries with blackouts as they increasingly get off the grid.

Maritz prefers to work on many other problems in South Africa. EskomSePush has added a new ‘Ask my street’ service to enable South Africans to more effectively report and repair local water and power outages outside of Eskom.

“A small part of me is thinking . . . let’s help the South Africans help each other too,” Maritz said. “I hope we can use load separation as a launching pad to build something bigger.”

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