Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Dealing with Eskom's load shedding

Load shedding and Eskom have been on the lips of many South Africans over the past few weeks. We have had some of our worst electrical outages ever — even to the point of mines being forced to close. We are in the middle of an energy crisis and fortunately everyone has now realised that.

On Friday the government released a plan to deal with this crisis, along with a background document explaining the current situation, and some more details of the plan.

The problem is that there has been a rapid growth in demand and the reserve capacity has been consumed, leaving Eskom with only about 8–10% reserve margin. They want to have 15% reserve margin. The current small margin puts a lot of physical strain on the grid as it reduces time for maintenance (generators have to run more), and results in the generators running harder (like driving your car close to the red line the whole time). These stresses result in more unplanned outages.

For example, in the week of 14 January a total of 8700MW (22%) of the capacity was unavailable. 5000MW of that was due to unplanned outages.

In the medium and long term Eskom is continuing to expand their capacity, but in the short term drastic measures need to be taken to keep the economy supplied with electricity. Right now Eskom needs to release about 3000MW of capacity to provide enough "breathing room." That is a large chunk of power....although you might be surprised at how easily it can be obtained.

There is a single viable option to solve this crisis in the short term, and that is power conservation. The government and Eskom have identified this and have the following short term goals (my comments below the bulleted lists):

  1. Introduction of a quota system (rationing) based on success in Brazil
    • Consumption reduction targets for
      • Industial: 10%
      • Commercial: 15%
      • Hotels, resorts, shopping centres, conference centres: 20%
      • Large offices, government buildings: 15%
      • Agriculture: 5%
      • Residential: 10%
    • Penalty tariffs for use above quotas
    • Cut–off of repeat offenders
    • Incentives for exceeding savings targets
    • Trading of used quotas for large consumers

    Brazil's system was pretty simple: all users had to reduce their consumption to 80% of their previous year's consumption. There were penalties for not complying, and incentives for exceeding the targets. Large consumers could trade their excess savings. Interestingly, Brazil's greatest savings came from the low end of the market.

    The key to making this work would be to implement the simplest practical system, and stick to it.

    I think that it is a reasonable proposal, and could have the fastest impact, as there would be direct cost implications for all users, which would inspire energy savings and efficiency.

  2. Efficient lighting roll–out programme (target 750MW by 2010)
    • CFL roll–out to users
    • Immediate restriction on sale of incandescent light bulbs

    There is an estimated immediate savings of 600MW if all residential households change to CFLs. I think energy efficient lighting is great, but residential users are typically only using lighting at night, so this does not really play a role during the day. I believe that if businesses focus on improving their lighting efficiency it could make a significant contribution towards the targets.

    It is also interesting that there are plans to back up the drive for energy efficient lighting with a restriction on incandescent lighting. 20 lumens per watt will be the minimum lighting efficiency allowed. CFLs and quartz halogen bulbs are both more efficient than this (examples of lighting efficiencies). For those of you concerned about mercury, there is a plan to develop a disposal protocol for the CFLs.

  3. Solar water heating programme (target 650MW)
    • 1 million installations over three years
    • Unit cost and production capacity are issues

    The high cost and slow pay–off of solar heating make it unappealing as a retrofit for residential users. Industrial users probably stand to win the most by changing over, and the next point definitely has merits.

  4. National housing specification
    • Mandate all new houses be built with solar geyser or gas geyser
    • Time switch or interlocker between geyser and stove
    • Ceiling insulation
    • Geyser insulation
    • Double glazing
    • Weather stripping of doors and windows

    The actual impact of this will take a while to materialise, but the benefits will be reaped for years to come. Interlocker switches will ensure that geysers and stoves do not operate concurrently, reducing the peak demand in the mornings and evenings. Improvements in insulation will reduce the need for heating and cooling, which is a benefit to the national grid, as well as the user.
Medium term goals include smart metering (I still do not understand how this helps with the load), fuel switching (to LPG), conversion of traffic lights and public lights (to solar powered), and the conversion of water heating to solar in the hospitality industry.

Overall, I think the approach is correct, but the reality is that the power still lies in our hands. That is a great responsibility for each of us. If we want to see our country grow (and our mines working again!) we need to each take responsibility for reducing our energy consumption as much as possible. We (and the government) need to take immediate action to resolve this problem.

I believe that the government and Eskom should embark on a huge national advertising campaign to support this plan. It should be hard hitting and demonstrate that each of us has a role to play in securing our future. It should become socially unacceptable to use power inefficiently. We each need to stand up for our own future.

To find out how to help read the 7 best ways to stop load shedding.