Friday, December 1, 2023
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South Africa is currently grappling with a severe electricity crisis, characterized by enforced power cuts that have escalated year after year. The country experiences prolonged periods without electricity, lasting up to 10 hours a day. The primary cause of this shortfall stems from frequent breakdowns at its aging coal power plants, which account for a staggering 74% of the nation’s generating capacity.

Theoretically, improving the performance and reliability of existing coal plants could alleviate the power crisis. This solution has been advocated in some circles. However, the reality is far more complex than it seems. Many of these plants require extensive overhauls, a process that is both time-consuming and prohibitively expensive.

To address the current deficit, estimates suggest that South Africa needs an additional 6,000MW of capacity. However, completely eradicating this shortfall may take as long as five years, although partial improvements are expected by the end of 2024.

While the construction of new coal, nuclear, or gas plants is being considered to enhance future power supply, these projects typically require a decade or more to complete. Hence, they do not offer viable solutions in the short- to medium-term.

Timelines for Fixing Existing Power Stations

South Africa’s largest power stations, Kusile and Medupi, with a capacity of 4,800MW each, were commissioned in 2007. These coal plants were expected to guarantee ample electricity supply and facilitate the decommissioning of older plants. Unfortunately, their construction turned into a disaster. Costs escalated significantly beyond initial projections, and progress fell far behind schedule. Even today, one of Kusile’s six units remains unfinished.

The early years of operation were plagued by calamities. An explosion at Medupi’s Unit 4 in 2021 caused extensive damage, rendering the unit inoperable. Furthermore, in October of the same year, a chimney collapse at Kusile led to the closure of three units. These setbacks further exacerbated the power crisis.

Koeberg, a nuclear power plant contributing approximately 5% of South Africa’s electricity, is approaching the end of its originally projected 40-year lifespan in 2024. To extend its operating license for an additional 20 years, specific part replacements and upgrades are required, with the most significant being the installation of new steam generators. Initially estimated to take 10 months, the upgrade project faced complications, leading to its cancellation in early 2022. A subsequent attempt began in January of the same year but experienced delays, pushing the projected completion date to at least August. Following this, the other unit will undergo a similar process, followed by a planned 200-day outage. As a result, Koeberg is effectively operating at half-power, a situation expected to persist into 2025.

Gas Power Ships

In response to the deepening power crisis, the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy announced successful bids in 2021 to provide 2,000MW of emergency power. The majority of this allocation, 1,200MW, was awarded to Turkey’s Karpowership. The company operates a fleet of floating gas plants that are shipped and moored in three South African ports: Richards Bay, Nqurha, and Saldanha.

The awarding of the contract to Karpowership sparked controversy, with accusations of unfair advantages in the bidding process. Legal challenges were raised regarding the environmental impact approvals. Critics argue that the terms of the deal with Karpowership could result in a long-term arrangement for temporary emergency power over a 20-year period.

Opposition and delays in reaching financial agreements for other projects have caused the emergency program to fall at least a year behind schedule. Although some additional capacity may come online by the end of 2023, it will only moderately alleviate South Africa’s electricity shortfall.


The Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme aims to promote the production of solar and wind energy by private developers, who then sell it to Eskom. However, due to the intermittent nature of sunlight and wind, solar and wind farms typically operate at around 25% and 35% of their maximum capacity, respectively. To address the 6,000MW shortfall solely with solar or wind energy, an extensive capacity of either 24,000MW of solar farms or 18,000MW of wind farms would be necessary.

Two rounds of establishing new renewable energy plants are currently underway. The first round is expected to add 1,000MW of solar power and 1,600MW of wind power by early 2025. The second round will see an additional 1,000MW of solar projects completed approximately a year later. The new electricity minister has proposed an ambitious initiative to install 15,000MW of solar and wind power. However, the construction of such a significant number of solar plants simultaneously presents challenges, including potential import bottlenecks and a shortage of skilled installers. While certain plants may become operational by late 2025, the entire program is likely to require five years for full implementation.

Domestic and Private Solar Installations

Small-scale solar power installation initiatives have made significant strides in accelerating electricity production. These initiatives range from municipal or private enterprise solar farms to individual rooftop solar panel installations. While this sector currently represents a relatively small portion of the overall energy landscape, late last year, the president announced the development of projects totaling 9,000MW.

Despite notable growth, the expansion of private solar installations faces similar constraints encountered by the renewables program, including import bottlenecks and skills shortages. While municipalities and smaller entities capable of implementing such projects will experience considerable relief from power cuts, these initiatives will only moderately reduce the national shortfall.

The Timeframe for Possible Recovery

Immediate remedies and ongoing initiatives are unlikely to have a significant impact on South Africa’s power crisis in the current year. Projections also assume the absence of major setbacks similar to the Kusile accident of last year.

By the end of the year, an additional 1,000-2,000MW may be added to the country’s generating capacity. However, a substantial decrease in the power shortage is only anticipated toward the end of 2024, contingent upon the completion of Kusile repairs as expected, and the commissioning of several renewable energy projects.

Complete elimination of power cuts is projected to require another five years if the planned infusion of solar and wind capacity progresses as intended.


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