THIS WEEK’S excruciating two-hour long Eskom media conference boiled down to the usual exhortation for us all to use less electricity – as though it is our fault that Eskom failed to plan to produce enough. Nor was there recognition that the prime cause of the mess could be laid firmly at the door of 20 years of poor Eskom management.

All the conference proved was that there is no point in demanding quick solutions. They do not exist. Just as a 600 000-ton oil tanker cannot stop instantly, a power station takes years to build.

There is no affordable way of providing instant base-load electricity. Diesel turbines can be switched on and off, but as Eskom has found it costs mega-bucks to run them and, surprise, surprise, money does not grow on trees. (Eskom managers please note).

Nuclear-fusion future

It is futile to demand answers to obvious questions like:

n Did Eskom management make timely investments in new plants in the last 20 years? Did it carry out diligent maintenance of all its plants over this period? Did it spend more money on itself and not enough on new plants? Did it allow skilled people of the wrong colour to leave Eskom before suitably qualified black replacements could be found?

n Did Eskom use the last 20 years to train sufficient technicians? Did it allow itself to accept poor quality work from outside contractors? How much bigger is the Eskom workforce today than it was 20 years ago?

You can ask such questions even if common sense tells you the answers, but as the Eskom gabfest this week proved, the answers you will get would be so wrapped up in mangled grammar and jargon that you need not have bothered.

So let us change the subject, away from the appalling mismanagement of the national electricity grid and instead dream of living to see a better future – one that will sweep aside the overpaid bureaucrats that have taken over Eskom in the last two decades.

It is a nuclear-fusion future. This is not the kind of nuclear reaction that scares the daylights out of the ignorant. It is not nuclear fission that spits out some nasty radiation. It is a fusing together of atoms to produce heat, the same process, more or less, than that of the sun.

For nearly 70 years, nuclear scientists have been trying to create fusion that produces more energy than it takes to create it and spent billions or trillions of taxpayers’ money in the attempt.

The results have been pitiful. Even if success one day comes, it will not change the antique way of providing power managed by giant utilities like Eskom.

However, there might be another route to fusion that will break the pattern. Some scientists have been trying a chemical nuclear route to create fusion and, despite howls of outrage, accusations of skulduggery and fraud, they claim they have done it – and at room temperature, not the millions of degrees centigrade that have been used so far.

If the chemists are right, they have created a nuclear power source that produces tiny amounts of radiation, using fuel as abundant, cheap and clean as hydrogen derived from water.

What a wonderful world it would be. There would be no need for giant utility companies like Eskom. Every suburb, every factory, every house would have its own fusion generator.

No more pylons cluttering up the view. No gigantic wind generators slaughtering birds. No massive arrays of photovoltaic panels in the deserts. No huge battery banks and power inverters to store wind or sun power. And no diesel-guzzling turbines to back them up when the sun does not shine brightly enough or when the wind does not blow regularly enough.

This year, the simmering battle between scientists over whether cold fusion is real or a clever swindle, hotted up.

On the side of the physicists came an announcement by the famous Lockheed “Skunk works” (the place that produced stealth airplanes). Lockheed claimed to be able to provide a 100-megawatt fusion reactor within ten years that would be small enough to fit on the back of a truck.

Green person’s dream

No need for giant power stations, if they pull it off – just lots of small ones.

Fusion researchers have pooh-poohed the announcement; such is the way of the scientific community. There have been many announcements of nuclear fusion breakthroughs. They all claim that it can be done at room temperatures.

One recent alleged method for creating fusion that got some physicists’ blood boiling comes from Italy. It is the child of a self-taught engineer called Andrea Rossi.

Rossi claims his method is produced in a low-energy nuclear reactor he has designed. Rossi also claims his method has been independently verified.

Rossi describes his process as “fusing nickel with hydrogen to produce copper. This reaction is exothermic, which means that it produces excess energy. The energy content of the copper is less than the energy content in nickel and hydrogen alone – and the excess energy is in this case being released as heat energy.”

The reactor is small. It fits on a tabletop. Fine granules of nickel plus hydrogen and a catalyst produce a reaction. The heat generated turns water into steam that drives a generator. The fuel allegedly produces 1 million times more energy than petrol.

Sounds like the answer to every Green person’s dream. Sounds like the answer to every South African’s prayer as well.

Meanwhile, until fusion is mastered to everyone’s satisfaction, our national and monopolistic electricity company will continue to be run by top managers with little or no experience, and “manned” by too many people who are there for reasons other than their qualifications.

Keep praying citizens, and thank heaven for light-emitting diodes.

Keith Bryer is a retired communications consultant.