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Gridlocked: A long-term look at South Africa’s electricity sector

Gridlocked. Eskom Transmission Lines
The Gridlocked research paper highlights that tranmission and distribution grid planning cannot be an afterthought.

On Tuesday, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in South Africa launched a research paper, Gridlocked, stating that a different type of grid is needed to solve the country’s energy challenge.

According to ISS researcher Steve Hedden, the Gridlocked paper explains that South Africa would get a much better return on its energy investments if it planned a smarter and more flexible electricity grid.

In turn, a better grid would also boost the contribution of wind and solar energy.

Is South Africa Gridlocked?

According to the ISS, government’s response to power shortages and load shedding has been to concentrate on increasing power generation from coal-fired power plants, oil and gas, renewables, and potentially a fleet of new nuclear power stations.

“But fixing South Africa’s energy crisis is not just about generating more energy,” Hedden said at the Pretoria launch of the Gridlocked research paper.

He added: “It doesn’t make sense to invest heavily in generation capacity without also rethinking transmission and distribution.”

Energy planning in South Africa has neglected the key element of how electricity moves from generation to consumption, Hedden stated.

The Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity 2010–2030 (IRP 2010), adopted in March 2011, did not address the grid at all. However, transmission was included in an IRP update in November 2013.

“Grid planning can’t be an afterthought. It has to be built in from the start,” Hedden said.

Planning for a new grid

Planning the grid was much easier when a few big power stations provided energy mostly to a few big cities, with one organisation responsible for the entire system.

Historically in South Africa, Eskom produced electricity at coal-fired power plants in Mpumalanga, the largest net supplier. It then delivered most of it to the economic heartland of Gauteng, the largest net consumer.

Lately the source of power is shifting. By 2040, Limpopo’s new coal-fired plants will make it the largest net supplier; and new gas and renewable capacity will make the three Cape provinces net producers.

Therefore, planners must now consider the rise of renewable energy, and the addition of independent power producers (IPP). On top of this is small-scale residential generation as citizens install their own rooftop solar panels.

Gridlocked to decentralised

Hedden explains that electricity generation is becoming decentralised and intermittent, and the line between consumer and producer is blurring.

At the same time, the electricity sector is transitioning away from a centralised monopolistic model, with new players taking on roles and responsibilities historically controlled by Eskom.

The grid used to handle only a one-way flow of power from producer to consumer. Now, according to the Gridlocked research paper, it has to accommodate potentially millions of small-scale producers feeding energy into the grid.

Small-scale residential power generation from solar panels could account for 30GW of electricity-generating capacity in South Africa by 2050. The challenge is that its contribution today is retarded by an absence of clear policies and regulation.

“A more intelligent grid would be the result of investments in grid efficiency, and better electricity planning, operations and policies,” Hedden concludes.

Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl
Nicolette is the Editor of ESI Africa print journal, ESI-Africa.com and the annual African Power & Energy Elites. She is passionate about placing African countries on the international stage and is driven by the motto "The only way to predict the future is to create it". Join her in creating a sustainable future through articles and multimedia content.