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Energy-crisis myths, misrepresentations and fallacies

Submitted by Bryan Hadfield

Much of the recent reporting on the Eskom crisis is based on a poor understanding of the true nature of the energy problems and what would constitute useful responses from the public. Half-truths, disingenuous excuses, obfuscation and myths abound.

  • Turning off your hot-water cylinder for a few hours a day saves large amounts of energy: It does not. It mostly just defers the use of that energy until you turn it back on.
  • Load-shedding has to be done because people are using too much energy: A half-truth. Load-shedding has to be done because too many people are using too much energy at the same time and Eskom did not act to increase its generating capacity to match the predicted demand for electricity.
  • Unseasonable rain wetting the coal has been a major factor: Well, yes; but only because misguided reductions in normal stockpiles and mismanaged supply contracts resulted in coal stockpiles running so low that Eskom was forced into trying to handle large quantities of the finely crushed coal dust that collects at the bottom of the heap and which becomes a conveyor-clogging slush when it is wet.
  • Growth rates in the economy have exceeded all expectations. We are victims of our own success: Not true! Growth rates have been below target values set by the government, and the forecasts made in the 1990s correctly predicted the need for additional capacity to be brought on line by 2007.
  • So what are the real stories and what can be done?

    Government policy with regard to the electricity-supply industry delayed the construction of new power-generation plants. Warnings that new, large power stations would be needed by 2007 or 2008 and that they would take 10 or more years to plan, build and commission were ignored or not believed. Eskom has been complicit in allowing the situation to reach crisis levels by failing to lobby the government forcefully enough and by not making sure that the politicians understood the inevitable and economically catastrophic consequences of delays.

    Did Eskom senior management have appropriate electricity-supply-industry backgrounds and the experience to appreciate fully the need for urgent action and the consequences of failing to maintain an adequate margin between peak generation capacity and peak system load? Possibly it did not.

    Eskom adopted aggressive affirmative action and black empowerment policies. Meeting racially defined quotas was given much greater importance than retaining and employing skilled and experienced personnel. This applied as much at the top as elsewhere, or perhaps even more so. Highly qualified and very experienced people with years of service in senior positions were encouraged to retire early to make room for these policies to succeed. In a highly technical, complex and strategic industry, this was a particularly dangerous strategy. No matter how politically frustrating it may be, there is no substitute for appropriate experience, and unfortunately it still takes 20 years to get 20 years’ experience.

    Exacerbating the present crisis is the age of much of the infrastructure as well as inadequate capacity in parts of the network. Transport of power to the points of consumption, particularly when equipment failures occur, becomes an aggravating factor. Large parts of the present infrastructure were built in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Much of the equipment is now 40 to 50 years old and approaching the end of its useful life.

    A fundamental and poorly understood characteristic of the electricity-supply industry is that large quantities of electricity, the quantities needed to supply big cities and heavy industry, cannot be economically stored. It must be manufactured at the same time and in the same quantities as it is being used. Turning something off does not allow electricity to be saved and made available later. It simply means less electricity has to be generated now, but it will have to be generated when the load is turned back on.

    Another poorly understood issue is the magnitude of the loads and the capacity of the generating plant needed to power a modern economy. Renewable resources are at present unable to provide power on the scale that it is needed for many purposes. Nine hundred large wind turbines would be needed to match more or less the output of the Koeberg nuclear power station. The Western Cape at present uses more power in peak periods than two Koebergs can produce. The balance is imported from stations in Mpumalanga via Eskom’s 400kV transmission lines.

    The wind turbines needed to meet this load would probably occupy more than 2 000ha of land, and they only work at full capacity when a good, strong breeze is blowing. You cannot place them too close to each other or one behind another because they affect each other. And, of course, you cannot store their output for use when the weather is calm.

    When it comes to solar panels used to generate electricity, not to be confused with solar water heaters, it is definitely no contest. Nearly 2 000ha or 20 square kilometres of solar panels would be needed to match Koeberg’s output. They produce direct current at low voltages, and expensive inverters would be needed to turn that into the alternating current necessary for economical transmission and distribution. And then, what do you do at night? Remember you cannot store electricity economically in large quantities.

    So where do we go from here? It’s a big problem, which reminds me of the story of the traveller asking for directions and being told: “You can’t get there from here.”

    We are not the only country needing to build new, large-capacity power stations urgently. The additional capacity we need over the next two decades pales into insignificance compared with the needs of countries such as China and India. An international shortage of skilled artisans and engineers is making it difficult to recruit skilled staff and easy for existing technical staff to find lucrative employment elsewhere at highly competitive salaries. Insisting on meeting racial quotas and applying preferential procurement and promotion policies is not helpful.

    In the short term, we need to do two things. The first, and most important, if we are to avoid or reduce the need for load-shedding, is to spread our consumption of electricity more evenly over the day and avoid, as far as possible, consuming energy during the morning and evening peak periods. Isn’t it strange that Eskom has not clearly and unambiguously told us this and told us exactly when demand is normally at its highest? Gee, guys, it does, after all, follow a similar pattern every weekday with timing variations between summer and winter. Pretty warning gauges on TV are all very well but don’t allow us to plan ahead.

    So, yes, turn your hot-water cylinder off in the late afternoon and turn it back on after 10pm to heat the water you used showering after your evening run, washing the dishes and so on. This may not save much energy, but it will defer its consumption into the low load period in the late evening and at night. There should be plenty of hot water for a morning shower if that is your preference.

    Now comes the hard part. If you prefer to shower or bath in the morning but also need hot water in the evening, you need to replace any hot water used by switching the cylinder on during the day when the peak load on the national grid occurs — but when? Why don’t you tell us, Eskom? A better plan is to change your habits and shower or bath in the evening, reheating the water overnight.

    Then we also need to be careful. If we all turn our cylinders back on, say between 10pm and 11pm, we will generate a new peak, which could be as big a problem as the present situation. It needs a proper plan. If no hot water is used during the day, leave the cylinder on so that there is enough hot water ready for you when you get home. The thermostat will make sure that the cylinder only turns on for a few minutes at a time once or twice during the day, particularly if it is well insulated, so make sure you install a geyser blanket. The on-and-off operation during the day is not a big problem because it only lasts for short periods. As long as no hot water is used, you are only replacing the small amounts of heat energy that leaks through the insulation. There will almost always be timing differences between the thousands of cylinders in South African homes, spreading the load fairly evenly through the day.

    To save significant amounts of energy you have to reduce your consumption of hot water or use solar water heating. You can fit low-flow shower heads, you can shower instead of bathing and you can insulate the hot-water pipes between the cylinder and the hot taps so that you don’t have to run off litres of cold water before the hot water arrives and then let the hot water in the pipe go to waste and get cold when you turn the tap off.

    Run your washing machine and dishwasher, if you use them, after 9pm rather than during the day. If you can afford it, use a dishwasher instead of washing by hand. Make sure it is full before you run it. Wash clothes in cold water; very few modern fabrics have to be washed in hot water to get them clean. Use compact fluorescent lamps to replace old-style incandescent lamps to reduce the load on the electricity network during the evening peak.

    But understand that although these measures will help for a while, they are not a solution to the electricity crisis. They are a delaying tactic. The government and Eskom must use the time they buy wisely. Once we have taken all reasonable and affordable steps to reduce energy usage and defer peak-period consumption, this opportunity is no longer available. If they spend the time we buy them in endless debates and political bickering, if they continue to prioritise meeting BEE and affirmative-action employment targets over skills retention, experience and competence, then it will very quickly be too late. We will be back where we are today, but worse off because we will have no short-term options left.

    The load on the electricity network is growing all the time. If the economy is to continue to grow and provide more employment and a better quality of life, then electricity consumption must and will grow too. The reserve margin is currently around 6% compared with an internationally accepted norm of 15%. Unless even more new power stations are built and other measures are taken to increase the supply of electricity, the present situation is going to deteriorate.

    In an interview with the publishers of a number of respected technical journals in February, Eskom’s CEO, Jacob Maroga, provided figures that seem to indicate that if Eskom builds everything it is planning to build and it is all commissioned on time, as planned, the reserve margin will fall to 3,5% by 2014.

    What does this tell us? What kind of a solution is that?

    Bryan Hadfield is a graduate electrical engineer. He spent 30 years with one of the larger South African mechanical and electrical engineering consulting practices, of which 15 were in a senior management position. For the past eight years he has been practising as an independent engineering consultant specialising in the design and management of public lighting systems, the design of bulk power-supply networks for selected industrial clients and in engineering forensic investigations for the insurance industry


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    1. J. Venter J. Venter 30 March 2008

      As Bryan said, it takes 20 yrs to gain 20 yrs experience and there are no short cuts. SA is now filled with mathematical and other millionaire geniuses at all levels of society; a feat that is usually achieved within three of four years at some or other academy for learning. We all know the result thereof.

      It must however be said that the younger generation is more productive and achieve spectacular results in a shorter time span than the older generation f.i. it took three older generation guys, BJ Vorster, PW Botha and de Klerk all of 27 yrs to destroy the National Party while it took one new generation guy only nine years to achieve the same with the ANC.

      Bryan must understand that to cast pearls before the swine is futile. Let the newfound fundis sort out the mess and keep on doing what you do best; providing an experienced and quality service to those who pay ever devaluated paper currency therefore.

      Jannic Venter

    2. Antony in Perth Antony in Perth 30 March 2008

      To Bryan on my electricity consumption/generation

      For the doubters,my home has 8 “Sunny Boy” photovoltaic solar panels of 200W each covering about 7m2 connected to a fronius 3kw ( for future expansion ) inverter.

      The panels are “grid connected” meaning that I supply during the day and use electricity from the grid during the night – the grid connection I use is “smart power” meaning that I use mostly wind energy from my electricity service provider – we have competition in Australia for power supply, unlike in SA where you have a monopoly, poor sods.

      My house also has a solar water heater with electricity ( from the solar panels ) as backup.

      Thats all it needs.

      The home has 2 adults and 2 children – an average family. I have done nothing more than sensibly reduce consumption to achieve my consumption pattern.
      We have an evaporative aircon rather than reverse cycle( 60w versus 2kw – there’s a no brainer for you ),an electric oven and electric induction stovetop.
      I also run a couple of computers and all the usual entertainment gadgets such as TV etc.

      One of the lessons people need to learn from the eskom crisis is that if everyone ran an energy efficient household which is not too hard to do, they too could achieve a reduction in their monthly bills – I’m sure everyone would like to achieve this.

      This can be done without affecting their lifestyles a great deal.

      Using less ( or right sizing your consumption of ) electricity is like eating correctly, if you do not you are a glutton and your girth ( and carbon emissions ) will increase, thats a given.

      Simple things like switching lights off when you leave a room, using LED or CFL lights, buying energy efficient appliances, not going overboard on entertainment devices – seriously does one really *need* a 100cm-150cm plasma tv when a 60-80cm LCD ( or even less ) would do the job perfectly well.
      Also run your high usage devices during non peak periods.

      Of course domestic consumption is only part of the picture
      Industrial operations too need to look at their consumption – they have had to reduce at least 10% in order to receive power from Eskom during load shedding, as an emergency measure because of Eskoms ( and the goverment’s ) lack of foresight but essentially they should be reducing their consumption for the sake of the planet.

      On another front, I cycle 18.5 k to work, rain or shine, I am fitter and more alert and pay less in petrol to boot. I also have lost > 5kg in so doing – without gym membership. My bills are down 40% on this time last year when I started improving lifestyle.

      Its your choice , live life efficiently or face a future where the planet goes haywire. I’ve done my bit, its time for others to do theirs. The dinosaurs who support fossil energy and overconsumption deserve their eventual extinction.

    3. Antony in Perth Antony in Perth 30 March 2008

      To Bryan, “They” have already cracked the problem of using fission. Its called -the sun- and using it requires either PV ( photovoltaic ) panels or CSP ( concentrated solar power ) installations. Easy.

      Other ways of using it – solar hot water heaters , heat pump airconditioning and drying your clothes in the open air and not using an electric dryer unless absolutely essential – they are absolute hogs when it comes to consumption.

    4. Antony in Perth Antony in Perth 30 March 2008

      I’ll wrap up my argument – since the weekend is closing and the end of daylight saving ( another way of saving energy – albeit obliquely ) has made today much longer than usual and typing requires energy. Of course a few thousand words of argument in a blog makes no difference materially to teh overall picture but I find it fun to indulge in this sometimes, especially when I can practically prove that I live a sustainable existence – if a few other people take this message then I’d be happy as larry.

      Also I sense Bryan has wrapped his ( factual and patient) argument, essentially we have set our positions – he feels that nuclear is the one source that will be the most important player in the future and I feel that solar and other renewables will be if they given the magnitude of subsidies that nuclear and coal have been given in the last 3 decades – which I think is criminal given there polluting methodologies.

      In realpolitik terms Bryan will likely be proven right, Britain has announced that they will go ahead and build new nukes and other countries ( like China ) increasingly will too.Australia’s new govt has said they will never build nukes and good on them but they are in the minority – and too often the minority are overruled, worse luck.

      I still live in hope that the worlds leaders will wake up and realise how silly it is to throw good money after bad and not “invest” in nuclear.
      But I can see that , like war, nuclear is something bad that most governments really really love ( especially those that like the side industry to nuclear power – nuclear “deterrence” weapons) and – like candy in a toddlers hands – it will be extremely difficult to persuade them otherwise.


    5. Antony in Perth Antony in Perth 30 March 2008

      Correction: When I said “they” have cracked the problem of using fission, I meant fusion.

    6. John Bond John Bond 31 March 2008

      @ Bryan

      You’re right about LEDs, It wasn’t a criticism of this good discussion. I thought you might just be interested. In addition to your observations on LEDs:

      – LEDs are still expensive per lumen\watt, particularly those with a good efficiency and a good colour
      – LEDs are current sourced making their integration into conventional systems slightly more difficult
      – You’re seldom able to extract the full wattage printed on the spec sheet, making them less efficient than they appear
      – Plus the heat and all the other negative aspects…

      I like your “discounted life cost” approach to lighting (and all the other aspects of power generation, distribution and use). For me, it’s the only way to evaluate this type of problem. If the use of coal is going to become much more expensive in the next 3 to 5 years, this affects the long term feasibility of a coal based system and favours other technology. It’s then automatically factored into your business decision.

      @ Anthony in Perth

      I note with interest your repeated post’s, adding lots of good emotional stuff but little of substance to this great discussion. I think maybe “You protestith too much”. One refers to those that follow a cause, whatever the negative implications as “bare foot prophet”. They are eager to walk bare foot the sharp rocky road to what they perceive as eternal salvation and in so doing they tend to do considerable long term harm to society and even their own cause.

      Bryan isn’t as emotionally involved. He sees thing with 20 or more years of clear rational thinking and an amazing enquiring mind, turning each stone over to see if perchance there is the golden scorpion of wisdom beneath. He tries to avoid preconceptions and is willing to change his mind often as circumstances change.

      Enjoy your cycle to work on those cold wet morning. I’m sure the suffering brings you much closer to the God of the Greens. I don’t know if it’ll stop the polar caps from melting though…

    7. Andy Hadfield Andy Hadfield 31 March 2008

      He comes from good stock, this author :)

      It’s great to finally see something clear cut. Half Eskom’s issue is a LACK OF COMMUNICATION. It’s the biggest PR mess this side of Clinton (the cigar one).

      Unfortunately, in South Africa, we don’t really have a choice – so we tend to whine and bitch incessently. This is changing, with the move towards self-powered corporates/construction/mining house. Interesting times…

    8. John Bond John Bond 1 April 2008

      Hey Andy

      Persuade your namesake to write another blog on energy. They;re informative and fun


    9. Tobie Tobie 17 April 2008

      At last someone got the geyser part right

    10. Bryan Hadfield Bryan Hadfield 23 April 2008

      For anyone still following this thread here is an article that adds another dimension to the current electricity crisis – Electricity theft and non-payment – Impact on the SA generation capacity crisis:

    11. John Bond John Bond 24 April 2008

      Hey Bryan – That article is amazing. I just can’t get my head round those telephone numbers Chris Yelland quotes as financial losses. Frightening!!!!

      Am I correct in saying that 27% of the electricity supplied to residential customers in not paid for or “stolen”???

      I support his comment that this isn’t a management problem but a problem of management (or by implication lack of them)

    12. Sean Sean 27 May 2008

      Solar power is an affordable and effective alternative when it comes to hot water tanks. A good place to start would be to replace your electric geyser with a solar powered geyser, as geysers consume a large portion of household electricity.

      See the cost saving details on:


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