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Empowering ourselves

It is so easy to be a victim, to blame someone else and to shrug off responsibility. I’m referring to things such as crime and education, employment equity and gender equality at some level, but what I actually want to get into is the power situation and how each of us affects and contributes to load-shedding and unplanned interruptions in electricity supply.

We, as a nation, have been spoilt rotten with cheap and accessible power (well, the more than 75% of the population that is connected to the grid, at least). We have been paying a pittance for energy and this has supported an economic boom and the development of heavy industry in the country. More recent indications are that South Africa’s electricity-supply deficit has become a stumbling block for international investment. It has been identified as one of the largest risks affecting new investment in the country. It seems the big hullabaloo and concern about socio-political climate and economic stability fades into a dim background against the glaring fluorescence of power shortfalls. But how can we as a nation address this issue together and not only point blaming fingers to the utility, the government, past regimes and large industries? Let’s explore the practical things we can do.

Practice number one
Switch on to understand how your power choices affect the bigger picture. This requires a dedicated focus on educating ourselves about our power-consumption patterns and then changing our behaviour to reduce the impact we have. Look at your utility bill to see what your average monthly kWh (kilowatt hour) consumption is and divide this by 30 and by the number of persons in the residence to get your average daily consumption. If my consumption is 15kWh per day, that means that I have consumed an average of 1kW continuously over a 15-hour period. The power used is enough to ensure 24-hour availability of one traffic light. If five people like me can reduce our individual consumption by only 20%, that will ensure one traffic light is working. Do the sums and you’ll see to power 100 000 traffic lights, you will need only 500 000 people to reduce their individual consumption by 20%.

Practice number two
Take the confusion out of peak load, load-shedding and consumption and let’s make them really simple. Consumption refers to the total energy consumed over a period of time and, as such, will always have hours attached to it (kWh or MWh). Peak load refers to the morning and evening periods (6am to 8am and 5pm to 9pm) when most people are showering, bathing, cooking and using kitchen appliances. What happens is that everyone uses these appliances at the same time, loading the power grid with higher demand for electricity. As our grid can only deliver 38 000MW at maximum capacity (all power stations operational), any demand in excess of this cannot be met. This results in grid overloads and potential network failures or simply an inability to supply demanded power. In order to manage these excessive loads, now also occurring during the day as a number of power stations are being upgraded and maintained, the utility sheds some of the load, leaving large parts of the country without power.

Practice number three
There is great potential for power savings through employing simple demand-management principles. This includes use of power-saving light bulbs, solar water heaters and automatic switches, and employing natural light as far as possible. Replacing one 60W bulb with an energy-saving 11W bulb will save on average 71kWh per year (assuming the light is on for four hours every night). This equates to R38, or 85kg of carbon dioxide, saved, while ensuring more power availability for other purposes, such as the country’s hospitals and clinics.

Geysers are by far the biggest culprits in residences, accounting for at least 50% on average of total electricity consumption. Turning geysers off over peak periods and switching them back on afterwards has a positive effect on reducing total demand over peak periods, but in the long run does not reduce the total power consumption related to water heating significantly, as you will heat the water up again. Although this is a great load-management principle, it does not reduce fuel consumption or greenhouse-gas emissions.

Installation of solar water heaters reduce electricity consumption related to water heating by more than 70%, in effect then reducing total household consumption by up to 45%. It also reduces associated fuel consumption and emissions. The average home can save in the order of 12MWh, R6 500 or 14 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by installing a solar water-heating system. A reasonable economic argument in support of the technology!

Practice number four
One of the most difficult things to do is to change behaviour, and power-consumption behaviour is no exception. It is all too easy to turn on all the lights at night, leave the computer on, leave appliances on stand-by, use large volumes of hot water in winter and switch on the electric blankets and heaters. I know our homes were not designed for comfortable winter living, but perhaps we can make them a little easier to live in through insulation of ceilings, instead of having to turn up every heating appliance to the maximum. If you’re not in the room, don’t use it. If you’re not at home, don’t use it. If you can take the chill off by putting on another jersey, do it. These are all common-sense habits that need to be created in order to really build a nation of switched-on power consumers.

Practice number five
Design and choose wisely. When designing a house, office complex, industrial site or another building, ensure use of natural light is maximised, natural ventilation and cooling is employed and insulation to protect against cold is installed. Choose power-wise appliances and install automatic switches for lights and temperature control, to activate only when there is someone in a room.

Practice number six
Educate and lead. There are few things as powerful as teaching through actions. Be the one to switch off the lights; be the one who fills the kettle only enough to make two cups of coffee if that’s all you need. Be the one who identifies opportunities to reduce consumption, thereby saving your home or office money and contributing to ease traffic flow around the country. As a bonus, you are also doing the atmosphere a favour.

Practice number seven
Never believe that your contribution makes no difference, because it does.

Together we can do much more than one utility alone can possibly achieve over the next five years. This problem affects all of us, but we can resolve it through changing our habits and choices.