JOHANNESBURG - South Africa’s rolling blackouts are costing the country tens of millions of dollars a day in lost productivity, say energy experts. While South Africa’s energy industry pushes for increasing its coal-fired capacity, renewable energy providers say it would do better to take advantage of the African sun and wind. But experts say it will take decades for renewables to make a meaningful contribution to South Africa’s national grid.
South Africa’s repeated four-hour power cuts, known as “load shedding,” are inflicting serious damage on the economy, say energy experts.
Businesses are forced to close their doors and traffic can literally come to a halt without electricity to power traffic lights.
Experts say for every 1,000 megawatts taken off the national grid, South Africa’s economy loses about $70 million a day.
With up to 4,000 megawatts lost during blackouts, the cost of power cuts is quickly adding up.
Critics argue pumping more subsidies into South Africa’s cash-strapped power utility, Eskom, is no solution. Eskom is already buried under a $30 billion mountain of debt.
Renewable energy providers say investing more in coal-fired power plants is not the answer.
Harald Bubel of the German power company KACO New Energy says bringing more players into the electricity market would break up Eskom’s near-monopoly and promote the growth of clean power sources.
“The future is we have to use renewable energy because we cannot pollute our Earth any further. The water is polluted. The air is polluted,” Bubel said.
Less than nine percent of South Africa’s 51,000 megawatt generation capacity comes from renewable energy while the rest is thermal energy, mainly coal-burning.
South Africa plans to add 19,000 megawatts of new renewable generation by 2030.
But University of Johannesburg energy expert Hartmut Winkler says renewables like solar and wind are no overnight fix for South Africa’s power shortages.
“At the moment it’s looking that in about 2050, roughly 60 percent of the country’s electricity will come from renewables. In order for this to work, you have to have some sort of a mechanism by which you can cover those times when there is no sun or wind,” Winkler said.
Ian Langridge, a board member of the South African Independent Power Producers Association, says there are major stumbling blocks for renewables – not just investment.
“It has to do with the regulations and the determinations, that is the legal framework within South Africa, that is preventing independent power producers to produce,” he said.
Langridge is referring to laws that require a certain level of local ownership and equipment manufacturing for any new energy project -- restrictions that tend to deter foreign investment.
That means coal-fired plants will likely dominate power generation for South Africa's foreseeable future.
It may also mean South Africans will have to deal with ongoing power cuts, although the calls for change are growing louder.