Opinion - Given Eskom’s current form, let’s switch to a solar/battery option

By Kanthan Pillay Time of article published Aug 30, 2019

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Opinion - FIVE years ago, an internationally renowned electrical engineer of my acquaintance and I were discussing the Grand Inga Project - a plan to build a 40 000 megawatt hydroelectric plant on the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

To put this in perspective, the biggest hydroelectric plant in the world is China’s Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River which generates 22 500MW.

Eskom’s generating capacity includes 13 coal-fired plants, the Koeberg nuclear plant, two hydro plants on the Orange River, two pumped storage schemes, four gas-fired plants, and one wind farm. Together, these output 44 084MW.

In other words, the Grand Inga Project, if completed, could supply almost 100% of that amount.

South Africa had signed a treaty with the DRC related to the project in 2013 which indicated we, through Eskom, would buy 2 500MW of power from the plant to feed into our national grid. The treaty committed South Africa to an investment of $2 billion for construction of phase 1 of the Grand Inga Project.

One small problem though: the Congo River is 3 500km away. Power lines from the DRC to South Africa would need to pass through Angola, Namibia, and Botswana before reaching Gauteng, and every 160km loses around 1% of power.

The engineer (whom I’ll refer to as Tony) was intrigued at the challenge of moving electricity from the DRC to South Africa. He conceptualised a solution that would use high voltage direct current (DC) instead of alternating current (AC).

This would have two advantages. First, DC is more efficient than AC over long distances. Second, DC uses one cable for every two needed by AC.

Tony’s interest in the project was driven by his desire to have South Africa be the first in the world to pull off a DC project of this scale.

My interest came from the sheer scale of the cost saving if Tony was right. A single cable stretching from DRC to South Africa would use 2 175kg of cable costing $250 000 a kilometre, so each cable run would weigh 7 612 tons and cost $870 million.

I knew of one company that was part of a world-leading alliance in transmission and distribution of electricity - Edison Power, which was started with R500 and a borrowed bakkie more than 35 years ago.

I had not met chairperson Vivian Reddy previously, but he responded positively to my request for a meeting between his technical team and Tony.

The first meeting took place shortly afterwards. Vivian introduced his team and left. I stayed to listen out of curiosity and watched as equations and explanatory notes flew across the whiteboard.

I took two insights from that meeting. First, the science of managing power distribution at scale was new territory for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed that brief glimpse into the field. Second, I was impressed by the competence and expertise on the part of Edison’s in-house team.

I’ve no doubt that had the collective intellect in that room been given the green light at the time, we in South Africa might today have been receiving the first supply of electricity from the power of the mighty Congo River.

Instead, political instability in the DRC led to the World Bank withdrawing funding for the project in 2016. The European Investment Bank, which had initially considered an investment of almost $1bn, has also backtracked.

The opportunity has been lost, perhaps forever. An investment of $100bn five years ago would have made financial sense at the time as cheap, clean electricity would be paying dividends in increased economic growth.

But technology does not stand still. Two years ago, Elon Musk’s Tesla group delivered a 100MW Powerpack giant battery to Southern Australia at a cost of $96m.

That Australian investment led to the ability to more effectively use both solar and wind electricity as well as stabilising the grid in peak times. In its first year of operation, the big battery generated revenue of almost $20m.

Last month, Tesla announced that its replacement for the Powerpack has 60% greater capacity. Tesla says it can deploy a gigawatt-hour plant on 1.25 hectares of land in less than three months.

Let me make a controversial suggestion: it’s time for drastic action around Eskom - and that requires writing off its debt.

Here’s my logic. Eskom sells electricity at a loss. Constant bailouts will not fix the problem, but the loans taken out to pay for construction of Medupi and Khusile need to be paid off.

If we absorb that debt into the national budget, we, as taxpayers, will still need to cough up the money. But writing off the debt would allow Eskom to reset its tariff structure to a level that is less expensive, which in turn can spur economic growth.

Then starting immediately, Eskom will need to systematically introduce solar/battery replacements for the 13 coal-fired stations it operates.

It will pay for these in two ways: One, by saving money it used to spend money on coal; two, by avoiding paying carbon tax which comes into effect in 2023 at a cost of R11.5bn a year.

Also, we can remind Finance Minister Tito Mboweni that he has saved $2bn that we promised to the DRC.

Srikanthan is one of the names of Vishnu. Another name for Vishnu is Jagannath, “the unstoppable force”, which gives us the modern word Juggernaut. Kanthan Pillay writes about understanding the unstoppable forces which shape our lives in technology, commerce, science and society.


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