Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “Eskom”

Under the weather

Posting on this blog has been a bit erratic of late because we have been a bit under the weather.

For details see: Back to the Dark Ages, or the heat death of the universe?

Independent Democrats question high electricity prices

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South Africans are paying four times more than some foreign countries for electricity, the Independent Democrats said yesterday.

Lance Greyling, spokesman on energy, said the ID wanted answers from Eskom over the increase in electricity exports to neighbouring countries during South Africa’s ongoing power crisis.

Greyling said he had sent questions for written reply to Minister of Public Enterprises, Alec Erwin.

Greyling said Eskom must also explain why there had been a 22 percent decrease in electricity imports.

He said Eskom exported electricity at 11 cents per kilowatt hour, which was a quarter of the rate South Africans pay.

In his questions to the minister, Greyling said the ID wanted to know the reasons behind South Africa’s exports to neighbouring countries being increased by a reported 6.1percent in the first three months of this year, and on what basis decisions were made to increase the export of electricity.

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As shortages of things like electricity, oil and even food grow, so will conflicts of interest.

Ideally, southern Africa should try to produce its own electricity for the whole subcontinent. As supplies of coal and other fossil fuels dwindle, there will be increasing reliance on hydroelectricity from the Zambezi and the Congo — but countries along those rivers will want to serve themselves first, and sell the surplus to others — while there is a surplus.

So which route to go — cooperation in the subcontinent, or autarky?

Storm in an aluminium smelter

South Africa would not have a power crisis if there were no big aluminium smelters, said Valli Moosa, the chairman of the Eskom board, and former Minister of Environmental Affairs, but this as a sensitive matter, as the row between Standard Bank and BHP Billiton shows.

Both mining giant BHP Billiton and South African banking group Standard Bank were on Friday tight-lipped over the name of a senior bank executive who made remarks that led to the diversified miner taking its business away from the firm.

This came after financial daily Business Day reported that a Standard Bank senior executive had suggested at a Business Leadership meeting with government that BHP Billiton should shut down its power-heavy Richards Bay Hillside aluminium smelter because it added little value to the economy.

“All I can say is that BHP Billiton can confirm it has taken a corporate decision to phase out its business links with Standard Bank,” BHP Billiton spokesperson Bronwyn Wilkinson told Mining Weekly Online. “The reasons behind this decision have been conveyed to the bank.”
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Moosa was speeking at a public meeting at St Martin’s School Hall, Rosettenville, arranged as part of the annual conference of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI).

For more on his speech see SAFCEI: Eskom is one of the biggest polluters in the world.


For the last three months South Africans have been complaining about Eskom’s failures in planning and bad management, as if it is the only organisation to suffer from such incompetence, and as if South Africa is the only country to suffer from such misfortunes.

So perhaps there was a certain sense of relief, not to mention malicious glee, in seeing that British Airways seems to be unable to organise the proverbial piss up in a brewery.

And there was the gent on Sky News muttering at 20 minute intervals about the damage it was doing to “brand UK”.

At least we’re not alone.

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British Airways said on Saturday that it was cancelling flights to and from London Heathrow airport’s new Terminal 5 for a third day running because of logistical problems.

“British Airways plans to operate 293 out of 347 scheduled flights to and from Heathrow Terminal 5 on Saturday,” the airline said in a statement on its website.

“All long-haul flights from Terminal 5 will operate as planned,” it added.

Hundreds of flights have been cancelled since the 8.7-billion-dollar (5.6-billion-euro) terminal opened on Thursday, delaying passengers and leaving many others without their luggage.

Terminal Five, the size of 50 football pitches, took 15 years to plan and build and is designed to handle 30 million passengers a year.

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Cable theft — under the noses of the cops

It is said that Eskom doen’t like us to talk about blackouts.

The politically-correct term is “previously illuminated areas”.

But when we woke up at about 4:00 am on Friday, with the electricity doing strange things, it wasn’t Eskom’s fault. The lights dimmed, the fan slowed, and then the lights came on again, and the streetlight outside was shining with unnatural brightness.

A few minutes later our dog Ariel came in through my son’s bedroom window, which is usually an indication that there are baddies about. She can be fierce with the postman or the plumbers, but when there are genuine baddies around, she seeks protection.

My son went out with a torch and a big stick to see if anyone had been trying to break in, and while he was out in the garden, two cop cars came roaring down to the end of the road. They asked my son if he had seen anyone, and he said he was still looking, and after a brief conversation among themselves, they roared off again.

Since we were now all well awake, we made coffee, and I began reading my e-mail, and then the lights wen’t off again, suddenly, with no preliminary flickers. After waiting a few minutes to see if they would come on again, I phoned the City of Tshwane electricity department. It takes a couple of minutes to get through — press 1 for this, three for that, 1 for electricity, 1 for power failures, listen to a long spiel from an auntie about Eskom’s rolling blackouts and telling you what web page to look at for the schedule (as if you could look up a web page if you are sitting in a previously illuminated area anyway). Then another plastic auntie asking what suburb you are in, and then asking to confirm that, and finally you get through to a human being.

I said the power was off, told her the street, and said I suspected cable theft. The flickering just before the power finally went off suggested that someone or something was trying to short out the wires. There wasn’t a high wind or a thunderstorm, so it was unlikely to be tree branches. It was not on the hour, so it wasn’t likely to be Eskom’s scheduled load shedding.

Now, 27 hours later, the power has come on again, on Saturday morning. At one point they had about eight lorries of municipal workers there, trying to replace the stolen cable.

And the cops were here!

They did it right under the noses of the cops.

And last night, about 9:30, with the neighbourhood in darkness, no lights, no street lights, nothing, our next-door neighbour’s burglar alarm went off. I phoned to ask if everything was OK, and said I could hear the alarm going off, and then the signal broke up and I couldn’t hear anything they were saying. But it sounded as though they were out, so I called the cops.

Ten minutes later a cop van comes past, goes up the road the other way. I was flashing a torch, and they came back. I told them about the alarm going off in the house next door, and they still dashed off in the opposite direction.

The last couple of days have considerably diminished my confidence in the South African Police Service.

Should heads roll over power crisis?

The Times – Article: Regret for blackouts:

Minerals and Energy Minister Buyelwa Sonjica conceded today that the country’s electricity crisis constitutes “a national emergency” and urged South Africans to work together to overcome it.

Opening a special joint sitting of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces, she expressed “sincere regret” for the power crisis.

But in an unfinished sentence, she appeared to criticise the call for heads to roll, saying there were some people who want to “crucify, crucify, crucify”…

Independent Democrats MP Lance Greyling pointed out that Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge was fired from her post as deputy minister of health for making one unauthorised trip abroad, but that no one had been sacked for bringing the economy to its knees.

There is a sense in which heads have already rolled — at the ANC conference last December, where many members of the cabinet were not re-elected to the ANC’s national executive committee, and no doubt this will also be reflected in the party list for the next general election.

But Lance Greyling of the ID makes a point that deserves further consideration. Where heads have rolled in the past, it has looked like an excuse, or misuse of power for personal rivalries and cronyism. Even the sacking of Jacob Zuma had more than a whiff of an excuse to get rid of a rival.

But heads rolling is not enough. We don’t need scapegoats: we need solutions. The government didn’t build power stations apparently believing that private enterprise would do so. Private enterprise hasn’t done so, so the government better do it. Oh yes, and stop Coega. The jobs lost through power cuts will far exceed the number of jobs created by Coega.

Solar robots to show the way

Nothing like a crisis to concentrate the mind!

Business Day – News Worth Knowing:

IN AN effort to help alleviate the effects of power cuts, the Central Energy Fund (CEF) announced yesterday that it had committed R40m to a drive to install solar-powered traffic lights at critical intersections in major centres around SA.

“This is an urgent intervention to alleviate the chaos on our roads that results from power outages, and which is impacting negatively on the economy of our country whenever there is load-shedding,” CEF CE Mputumi Damane said.

No, this is not proactive planning, but it does show that reactive planning can be creative, and at least it’s looking for solutions rather than scapegoats.

My wife left work too early yesterday to hear the traffic reports on the radio, and spent 45 minutes getting through the tangle at the Church Street/Duncan Street robots in Hatfield yesterday. Solar powered robots could at least mitigate some of the effects of the Eskom crisis.

Dealing with the electricity crisis "proactively"

Politicians really need to be more careful what they say.

Gwede Mantashe, the secretary-general of the ANC is reported as saying that we need to deal with the electricity crisis “proactively”. It is far too late for that. It should have been dealt with proactively 10 years ago. Any action taken now is simply reactive.

The Times – Article

South Africa’s electricity crisis was debated at length at the African National Congress’s three-day lekgotla which closed in Midrand on Sunday, said the party’s secretary-general Gwede Mantashe.

The ANC would be looking into a number of interventions, he said.

‘Rather than being in a state of panic [we should] deal with the issue proactively because it is actually positive that the country is growing to the extent that we actually exhaust the energy capacity,’ he said.

Instead of viewing the problem as an energy crisis, it should be seen as an indication that more efficient energy consumption was needed.

To be proactive means to anticipate, and the crisis we face now is the result of a failure to anticipate.

For more than 10 years Eskom has channelled its infrastructure development into expanding the distribution network. That in itself should have led planners to anticipate increased demand by planning to build new power stations or at least bring mothballed ones back on line. Johannesburg City Council used to sell power to Eskom from its Kelvin power station.

Whether the problem was caused by the failure of Eskom to plan, or by political pressure from the government (as Cosatu claims), the fact remains that the problem is already here and it is much too late to be proactive about it, and the use of weasel words by politicians won’t solve the problem.

The only way we can deal with the crisis at this late stage is reactively, not proactively.

But there are different ways of dealing with problems reactively too.

One of the dangers of reacting to problems after they have occurred is that it is easier to look for a scapegoat than a solution.

An extreme example of that is the reaction of the commuters who set fire to trains, and now face a non-existent train service because the trains are ashes.

Such reactions are counter-productive.

But the same attitude is apparent in many comments in blogs on the topic, where some have demanded that Eskom planners be flogged and similar things.

Some have suggested that Eskom be sued for losses suffered as a result of the power cuts, and that would be about as effective in solving the problem as burning trains. It would mean that instead of spending money on increasing generating capacity, Eskom would be paying lawyers to defend lawsuits. And the people who would pay for that would be consumers who would have to pay higher prices.

Burning trains and suing Eskom show the futility of looking for a scapegoat rather than a solution.

Electricity not being exported, says Eskom

Eskom says that electricity is not being exported to neighbouring countries when there is no surplus.

But isn’t it a bit late for President Thabo Mbeki to be meeting with Eskom management to ascertain the extent of the problem? According to Cosatu, it was President Thabo Mbeki himself who opposed Eskom’s plans to expand its generating capacity.

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Eskom has stopped supplying electricity to neighbouring countries amid the dire shortage in South Africa, it said on Sunday.
The power company only sold electricity when it had a surplus, said spokesperson Sipho Neke.

Of the electricity generated by Eskom, 95 percent is used locally. The rest is exported to Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

The country’s electricity crisis was debated at length during the African National Congress’s three-day meeting, which closed in Midrand on Sunday, said the party’s secretary-general Gwede Mantashe.

President Thabo Mbeki will meet this week with Eskom management to ascertain the extent of the problem and the company’s remedial plans.

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Load-shedding a human right violation: SAHRC

It looks as though there may soon be an independent investigation into Eskom:

IOL: Load-shedding a human right violation: SAHRC:

Eskom must give answers about the ongoing electricity crisis, the SA Human Rights Commission said on Friday.

In a statement, the SAHRC said it and the Public Protector could soon work together in an investigation to establish why Eskom had instituted power cuts to the extent it had recently.

Earlier this week, Public Protector Lawrence Mushwana sent a letter to Eskom saying he was considering investigating the power cuts because they were having a devastating effect on service delivery by government.

Eskom certainly needs to be investigated, but I’m not sure that the Human Rights Commission is the best body to do it. The way the Eskom crisis affects our constitutional rights is just one aspect of its managerial incompetence, and the other aspects need investigation too. Rather than doing its own investigation, the Human Rights Commission should throw its weight behind calls for a wider investigation, and prepare evidence to present to such an investigation.

Lots of people are blogging about the power cuts, and the Mail and Guardian is even running a special feature on Who do you blame? Unfortunately people seem to be more concerned with finding a scapegoat than a solution.

Obviously there has been poor planning on Eskom’s part. One of the things an investigation would need to determine would be whether that was the fault of Eskom’s planners, or whether it was the fault of top management, who failed to heed the advice of the planners. Eskom has obviously invested a lot in distribution infrastructure over the last 10-15 years, but equally obviously their generation capacity has failed to keep up.

For such incompetence heads must roll. But that is not enough. To solve the problem means that incompetent managers must be replaced by competent ones, and not merely other incompetent ones.

An investigation would also need to take account of political pressure.

Was the Eskom management under political pressure to make electricity available to as many people as possible so that all new investment in infrastructure was channelled into distribution, and not enough into generating capacity?

As I have travelled around rural areas over the last few years, I’ve seen many small communities that now have electricity, which did not have a few years ago. I found this encouraging evidence that the new South Africa was working. Ordinary people did not just have a right to have a say in the election of their government once every five years sor so, but their quality of life was improving. Perhaps it was, in part, a fulfilment of the ANC’s election promise of “a better life for all”. I didn’t then suspect that failure to plan for adequate generation capacity would render such advances illusory.

The warning sign was the Coega aluminium smelter proposal. That was certainly not planned to benefit the poor or the “previously disadvantaged”. That was calculated to benefit the previously and currently advantaged fat cats of Alcan:

Alcan has secured a long-term supply agreement with South-African energy firm, ESKOM Holdings Limited, for the purchase of up to 1355 MVA of electricity for the proposed 720kt greenfield COEGA aluminum smelter project, which will have a total estimated cost of US$2.7 billion. The agreement provides for a 25-year supply, set to begin in 2010.

“Alcan is engaged in successfully developing some of the most attractive smelter projects for primary aluminum production in the world, including this potential smelter in South Africa, all characterized by secure, competitively priced, long-term energy supplies, and leveraged by our world leading technology,” said Dick Evans, President and Chief Executive Officer, Alcan Inc.

Think about those “competitively-priced long-term energy supplies” for a moment. Where are they going to come from? And who is going to pay for them?

Most of South Africa’s electricity supply comes from coal-fired power stations, and many of them are situated in “Kragveld” — Western Mpumalanga, where the power stations have been built at coal mines. Most of these power stations are now fairly old, and cause unnecessary pollution, which causes acid rain, which in turn damages crops and buildings and poisons fish in rivers. Coal is a fossil fuel, and therefore not a renewable energy source. What is used for smelting aluminium tomorrow will not be available for lighting, heating or cooking the day after tomorrow. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

When I learned geography at school, one of the things we learned was that smelting aluminium consumes huge amounts of electricity, and that was why it was cheaper to build aluminium smelters in places where cheap electricity was available, and transport the ore to there. And that is why Alcan is in Canada, because Canada has lots of water and lots of mountains which makes for cheap hydroelectricity. And hydro-electricity, unlike electricity from coal, is non-polluting and is a renewable resource.

Why, then, does Alcan now want to build a smelter in South Africa, where electricity is produced from coal, which is less efficient and normally more expensive?

Because they’ve been promised a subsisdy, that’s why.

And who is going to pay the subsidy?

Why, you and me and all the “previously disadvantaged” who have just been connected to the electricity supply, of course. We will pay more money for less electricity, because you can bet your last cent that Alcan’s load is one that will not be shed.

So yes, Eskom’s poor planning does have quite a lot to do with human rights, but it also has to do with the environment, and a lot more besides. And perhaps the terms of reference of an investigating commission should be broad enough to ask why Canadian hydro-electricity has suddenly become too expensive for Alcan.

We have been told that the Coega aluminum smelter scheme will “create jobs” — but balance that with all the jobs that will be lost because of lost productivity caused by load-shedding, when shops and offices and factories close down because there is no electricity, and people sit for hours in traffic jams because robots aren’t working. Will the jobs created by the Coega scheme compensate for that?

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