By now, South Africans are well versed with the issues that are plaguing the country’s biggest, and almost only, energy provider, that has recently again left them in the dark.
State capture, high debts, lack of coal, an aging power station fleet, failures at the newly-built Medupi and Kusile power stations, poor maintenance of its older power stations, troublesome debtors and high costly diesel usage have left most convinced that Eskom has reached an irreversible critical point, as each one of these challenges further has the potential of being a fatal flaw.
Meanwhile, the planned unbundling of the utility can only exacerbate the problem as the Eskom’s generation business unit shall then be fully exposed as insolvent and unsustainable.
This all holds very serious ramifications for the South African economy, as well as the surrounding SADC region and has emerged as an urgent power crisis threatening the livelihoods of millions of citizens in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland; all countries that rely on electricity supplied by Eskom.
Eskom, in contrast, only imports power from the 1 920 MW Cahora Bassa hydroelectric generation station, in Mozambique, which recently suffered its own set of failures owing to the Idai tropical cyclone that ravaged the country in early March.
South Africa’s situation is made even more tenuous when Eskom’s generating capability falls below national demand requirements, as the power provider is unable to receive required support from neighbouring countries owing to transmission infrastructure constraints.
Over the last 25 years, there has been no investment in regional transmission interconnectors, which would allow countries to supply South Africa with much-needed electricity.
To date, the new renewable energy independent power providers supplying Eskom have been successful in assisting South Africa in meeting the Paris climate treaty objectives.
However, these projects have failed to replace the necessary baseload power supply core to a stable power grid system. There is such a thing as too many renewables and Eskom is failing partly because of its reliance on unstable power from the IPPs.
As overcapacity of renewables has caused strain on the country’s grid. South Africa is in desperate need of new cheap sources of baseload electricity. Coal and hydro are currently the only economically viable sources of baseload electricity identified in the region to date.
How regional power integration will contribute
Regional power integration has been an objective of the SADC nations since the formation of the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) in August 1995.
Closer relationships and regional integration have been championed by SADC members to enable corporation among neighbouring countries to secure low-cost, reliable power.
In South Africa, the government has authorised a determination aimed at purchasing 3 750 MW of coal-generated baseload electricity sources outside the country’s borders.
The purpose of the Cross-Border Determination is to ensure energy security for South Africa and to facilitate the construction of the transmission interconnectors between South Africa and its neighbours.
Zambia, Mozambique and the DRC have plans to produce over 25 000 MW of baseload power from hydroelectric facilities, which through this determination, will be able to supply Eskom and South Africa.
While hydroelectric power is an essential part of South Africa’s planned energy mix and clean energy future, there is, unfortunately, no hydro potential in the country.
This means that South Africa is reliant on imported hydropower. The cross-border programme would facilitate the transmission interconnections needed for South Africa to import hydroelectric power.
Following the execution of the Cross-Border Determination in May 2016, the then Minister of Energy succinctly explained the rationale in a speech to the South African National Assembly:
“The cross-border coal programme . . . facilitates the construction of the transmission interconnectors between South Africa and our neighbours. Transmission interconnectors are critical if we are to import power from the hydropower projects in the DRC, the Grand Inga, and in Zambia and Mozambique such as Cahora Bassa North Bank and Mpanda Nkuwa. This also gives the respective transit countries the necessary comfort that the interconnections are in their national interest and not just for the benefit of South Africa.”
With the Eskom power generation debacle gradually unfolding into potentially the biggest economic disaster of South Africa, it is paramount that all avenues to return energy security to the region is not only pursued but implemented with the great urgency and attention that the power crisis commands.
Regional power integration and the import of cross border generated power might not be the only solution; however, it is one that will have a significant impact.
Background to the planned interconnectors
The ZIZABONA line will allow the export or import of more power and trade in energy between the four countries of Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia.
ZIZABONA will create a new Western Transmission Corridor in the Southern African grid, which is identified as a priority project by the Southern Africa Power Pool (SAPP).
In addition to reducing transmission losses and increasing reliability, ZIZABONA will serve to ease congestion on the north-south transmission corridor through Zimbabwe to South Africa as well as on the north-south corridor in South Africa between the Matimba power station and Cape Town.
The BOSA line will also boost connectivity and electricity trading and significantly increase the amount of power that can move between Botswana and South Africa, as well as other neighbouring countries to improve security and reliability of power supply.