Opinion piece: Loadshedding is no longer just a South African issue – what can we learn from overseas?

South Africans are now faced with two realistic electricity scenarios going forward: chronic, persistent loadshedding for at least the next five years; or a total national power system collapse. Regardless of who is in leadership at Eskom, South Africans have lived with first scenario on and off since 2007. However, loadshedding is no longer just a South African issue, but a global one too. So, as a country, what can we learn from this?

2022 has been noted by industry experts as a very bad year for the electrical grid globally. Climate change, the energy transition, supply chain issues, materials shortages, and the war in the Ukraine have all meant that loadshedding is now a global issue being experienced in first-world countries too.

The world without power – not just South Africa

The following examples illustrate the magnitude of the growing global energy crisis.

  • California experiences wildfires each year, causing blackouts that routinely knock out the power grid for up to seven days. In Texas last year, more than 5 million Americans were left without power for several days, as climate volatility caused rolling blackouts.
  • In Spain and Portugal earlier in 2022, a weather phenomenon called the calima, a giant dust storm, caused winds to carry so much sand from the Sahara that it blanketed much of Southern Europe with reddish sand. About a third of Spain’s electricity is generated from solar panels, some of which were either covered with sand or damaged – resulting in lost power in some areas for three days.
  • Germany last year, quite reliant on wind, went through a heavily cloudy and non-windy period which they have called the Dunkelflaute – a phenomenon where little to no energy can be generated using renewable energy.
  • In France, the nuclear fleet – proudly lauded for years as one of the most stable power systems in the world – is in a state of disarray, with the nuclear fleet having an Energy Availability Factor (EAF) of only 54%. This is operating worse than Koeberg.
  • Around the world, coal plants are being decommissioned due to decreasing coal feedstock quality, carbon emissions and impact on climate change, and environmental and health reasons. South Africa’s own coal fleet is in dire straits with no realistic chance of EAF recovering to anything close to what is claimed by politicians and needed to prevent loadshedding. The well documented combination of an old fleet and coal supply issues combined with the disaster of the new plants at Medupi and Kusile is likely to see our fleet chronically underperform at a dysfunctional level. Solar and wind can ease the situation, particularly in the daytime and late afternoon when it is often windy, but until we have batteries or green hydrogen to store this solar or wind energy longer than 4-8 hours, we will continue to rely on mostly fossil fuel-based back-up power.

The effects of war

The war in the Ukraine has caused much anxiety, and Europeans are worried whether they will have enough heating this year to get them through this winter – as they are so reliant on Russian gas. While it seems that this ‘extreme crisis’ will be averted, it has been close – and it is compelling to know that Europeans are also worried about whether their lights will remain on.

Perhaps the most compelling case for South Africans to compare to is the frequent and consistent impact of hurricanes that hit the Eastern US and the Caribbean each year. These are so consistent they are predictable: the Caribbean works on an assumption that their power grids will be out for around six weeks a year, every year.

Puerto Rico has a bankrupt power utility, PREPA (their Eskom) and each time they try repair the power grids, another hurricane passes through and knocks the grid offline again. As a result, the conversation has moved from repairing the national grid altogether, to moving to a system of decentralised microgrids, largely interconnected but designed to run autonomously – ‘islanded’ – so that if a big unit goes offline, they can carry on running.

I designed a hurricane-proof microgrid in the Caribbean in 2019 that used a combination of solar, batteries and diesel engines (the design minimized the diesel use to only 6% of the time, by oversizing the solar and batteries). The technology has advanced in leaps since then.

That same year, my former colleagues visited the substations of the PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) utility in California where they launched a big tender for several hundred megawatts of microgrids. At the site visit, the utility engineers took them to the edge of the wall and showed them the scenery: fire-blackened land all around. The eligibility was that the technology had to have a ‘ride-thru’ of 7 days, and to maximise autonomous power, for when the grid gets knocked out, or when the utility shuts off or de-energize the power lines to avert wildfires. Back then, the technology wasn’t ready, and despite many submissions from a variety of solutions providers, no solutions providers comply and it was a failed tender.

The rise of the microgrid

When looking back on the last few years, microgrids back then seem to me what the Blackberry is now in the world of smartphones; you can’t even compare the systems upgrade compared to versions a few years ago.

A microgrid is exactly what it sounds like: an electric grid on a ‘micro’ scale. These can be connected to the big national grid – or municipal one for that matter – but they can also ‘island’, meaning they can disconnect completely if needed. A microgrid typically has three components: one or more electricity generators; one or more types of batteries; and an energy management system, a digital control that links it all together.

A microgrid is one type of a concoction of new technologies and solutions that have advanced in recent years, however, not all of these solutions have arrived in South Africa yet. We are still of the view that diesel, solar and batteries are the only solutions against loadshedding: solar panels when the sun shines, 4-8 hours of lithium batteries (Tesla if you have money), and then diesel generators, ubiquitous across Africa.

The new solutions are actually abundant. New types of gas: CNG, LPG, LNG, Renewable Natural Gas, Vegetable Oil. Modular biomass and biowaste boiler kits. Fuel Cells – some using green hydrogen, via PEM Electrolysers, some using Solid Oxide. These are abundant in California, used for hospitals and data centres, and in the cash-flush world of big tech, which seems ready to pay any amount of money for clean, reliable power.

In the latest microgrids in Europe and the US, it is not uncommon to see microgrids with around a dozen technologies all linked together to either generate, store, or reduce ‘loads’ of power. Microgrids typically use solar panels and wind turbines as the anchor technologies. Solar water heaters, heat pumps and industrial solar thermal can then provide heat and steam up to around 300°. Cogeneration and trigeneration can reuse waste heat gas and optimise systems. Lithium batteries, inverters, super-capacitators, fuel cells and other types of batteries can be coupled together to maximise storage when there is no sun or wind. In some cases, biomass boilers or biogas anaerobic digesters can burn organic matter – municipal waste or residual plant waste.

And finally, fuels such as diesel or others can be used as back-up, on a minimal level. Biodiesel may be possible, for climate change conscious consumers.

The Energy Transition is going to be a rocky road

The Energy Transition ahead is going to come with some glitches: we can no longer rely on our old technologies to effectively keep the lights on. Neither can we expect the new technologies – such as solar, wind and batteries – to come without teething problems. We are now living in a world of climate change and turbulent events. But as we all know, ‘any power is better than no power’: not only for economy and the lost damage and productivity caused by an extended blackout, but precisely for hospitals, food storage supplies, and other critical loads. Instead of pointing fingers between coal and renewables, hydro or nuclear, we should realise that a ‘transition’ implicates that you have one foot in each.

South Africans – whether homeowners, small business owners, or Big Business – should take heed that the main buzzword in the global marketplace is ‘resilience’. And that to have an effective strategy toward load-shedding you need to provide layers of resilience. Lastly, while recognising that the rest of the world is in a surprisingly similar situation, we can adopt lessons from the rest of world, and take heed that new solutions are being developed globally to help keep the lights on.