Energy Lessons from South Africa

Energy Lessons from South Africa

South Africa’s growth rate is outstripping its ability to generate electricity. There’s a message here for us.


What do you do when you flip the light switch and nothing happens? You call the electric company and complain. But what do you do if the electric company tells you, “We have run out of electricity”?

That is more or less what has happened in South Africa, which, despite the reputation of the continent it is part of, is anything but an undeveloped society. SA is a technologically advanced nation, which is one of the reasons it is in an energy fix of massive proportions. Its economy has grown much faster than its electricity- generating capacity.

The service interruptions that have resulted from this range from the laughable to the lamentable. In the laughable category is this South African newspaper report:

South African cricket captain Graeme Smith said on Thursday that he hoped the Western Province Cricket Association had made arrangements to ensure that…power cuts did not affect the second one-day international against the West Indies at Newlands on Friday. “I got back from cricket training last night and couldn’t get into my house,” he laughed. “I only had a garage clicker, not a front door key, so I had to go to my neighbour until the power came back on.” Smith said he now kept a front door key in his car.

On the not-so-funny side is the following from the Cape Argus:

Staff at Donaldson Filtration Solution, a factory in Epping Industria that manufactures filters for heavy duty vehicles, are having to start work at 6am and say this is “slowly taking its toll.”… The management at Donaldson Filtration had to ask staff to start work at least two hours early because Eskom [the electric company] scheduled power cuts for the area from 2pm to 4pm.

Food rotting in refrigerators, stalled commuter trains, inert computers, lifeless traffic lights–the list of inconveniences and crippled necessities is endless. No TV! The time, five years and running, estimated to remedy the situation will seem almost an eternity to South Africans having to suffer through the shortage.

It takes years to gin up major increases in generator capacity. You cannot order them up in January and have them in place in November. This should serve as a warning to Americans, who are better at objecting to the building of electric utility plants than they are at coming up with the means to generate power that they approve of and will allow to be constructed.

Oil- and gas-fired plants are out of consideration, for price and pollution reasons. But so is nuclear power. And if you try to put up a wind farm, you will be fortunate if one, two or three special-interest groups do not go to court to stop you. One project has been opposed because people do not want to look at it. The case of Teddy Kennedy and the windmills off Martha’s Vineyard is too well-known to need description.

With the coming of plug-in electric cars, electricity can and will replace much gasoline usage, but only if there is power in the receptacle the automobile is plugged into. That is not going to happen if we wait around for the invention of miraculous technologies while disdaining the ones at hand. The miracles are decades away; the demand for juice is not.

We can either get working on this or we can prepare ourselves for being cold, dark, immobilized, isolated, poorer, uncomfortable and very tired from the extra work we will have to do when our electrically powered machines can’t perform. Let’s get cracking.

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