Minister of Electricity Kgosientsho Ramokgopa has decided to look East and will embark on a “study tour” to Vietnam later this week to get lessons that could help Eskom end load shedding.
Vietnam has successfully multiplied its installed electricity capacity 10-fold in two decades, from 5 000MW in the year 2000 to 55 000 in 2020, and now 69 000MW through gradually opening up the electricity market to competition.
However, state-run utility company Electricity of Vietnam has been implementing rolling power cuts nationwide since last month due to increased electricity consumption on the back of extremely hot weather.
Ramokgopa on Friday announced that he would be leading a team to learn how Vietnam had successfully implemented its feed-in tariff, a policy mechanism that encourages renewable energy investment by paying producers or users to transfer excess electricity to the grid.
“Vietnam is an exceptionally good story of how you are able to exploit the dispensation of feed-in tariff to be able to expand and improve grid capacity over a period of 12 months,” Ramokgopa said.
“Vietnam was able to achieve an additional 9.5GW onto the grid. So we have had an extensive engagement with the Ambassador of Vietnam here in the country.”
Ramokgopa said it was important that they meet with Vietnam’s project developers so that those who manage the Eskom grid have “an intimate understanding” of how their Vietnamese counterparts were able to achieve their successes.
“Because they did indicate that as a result of that success, now they are sitting with a different problem of a grid being unstable because generation far exceeds demand,” he said.
Indeed, Vietnam simultaneously has an energy surplus and a shortage because its grid is not currently capable of moving the huge amounts of solar energy generated in sun-drenched provinces on the south-central coast to energy-hungry major cities and industrial hubs elsewhere.
The country has been turning off street lights and industries switching operations to off-peak hours to keep the national power system running, causing disruptions to business activity and communications systems.
Drought conditions in Vietnam have also brought many hydropower reservoirs to critically low levels while delayed coal imports have threatened operations at thermal power plants.
This has led to energy experts poking holes in Ramokgopa's plans as Vietnam has its own peculiar set of challenges that cannot be compared to South Africa’s.
Independent energy expert Lungile Mashele, who has spent some time in Vietnam, said Vietnam’s solar power was mostly rooftop with an attractive feed-in tariff (almost R2/kWh), with various sources estimating anything between 9 000MW to 11 000MW being installed in 2020.
Mashele, however, said the excess demand mentioned by Ramokgopa only existed during the day as Vietnam has recently started rolling blackouts in the evenings because they don't have sufficient supply.
“Vietnam has a unique load pattern, which unlike South Africa has 3 peak demand periods. The usual morning and evening peak but unique to Vietnam is a midday peak (12 - 3pm) that occurs during the rainy season. This midday peak is perfectly correlated to solar PV production and offsets midday demand,” Mashele said.
“It does, however, introduce another problem of evening ramp up for the system operator. As the ”duck curve” (graph of power production over the course of a day that shows the timing imbalance between peak demand and solar power generation) increases, the system operator has to find flexible and dispatchable capacity not just for the evening ramp up but for the increased intermittency as well.
“Managed incorrectly, this could lead to over or under frequency and a possible blackout. Towns close to the Chinese border e.g. Mong Cai now gets its power supply from Beijing - indicating once more the value of firm capacity, but also regional partners in ensuring security of supply.”
Another independent energy expert, Adil Nchabeleng, said though Ramokgopa’s international visits were important to learn what other countries were doing, certain things were a mix-match.
Nchabeleng said the solutions for Eskom needed strategic decision making at board and management level in fixing the broken power plants and end load shedding within three months instead of 12-24 months.
“Vietnam installed a lot of rooftop-based solar programme whereby most of the houses were subsidised. This is not something you need to go on a country visit, you can read about it and understand it from a desktop,” Nchabeleng said.
“South Africa has not introduced any subsidised rooftop solar programme, but if that was the case you would see the uptake and the reduction of demand on the grid.
“I think the shift of mindset and taking the problem seriously should be the catalyst for driving change. Doing trips is not going to help us. The problem sits at Eskom. Fix those power plants and make sure within three months they are returned to operation.”