Do engineers have the key to solve South Africa’s energy crisis?

July 8th, 2015, Published in Articles: Vector

Paul Fitzsimons

Paul Fitzsimons

As the power and energy debate in South Africa continues to draw attention from world-wide players and sparks contest between industries seeking solutions to the situation, we should look to the past to determine our future.

There is no one-size-fits-all universal solution to South Africa’s energy deficiency challenge as each country has its own unique systems and geographical concerns. South Africa needs to find its own solution which is a balance between sources of supply and available technologies in which skilled engineers have a big part to play.

The current energy challenge is primarily a management issue; we only see the symptoms of the problems but not necessarily the root causes. Many factors contributed to the state of our energy resources today, from failure to implement policies in prior decades which prevented private capital ownership on the energy grid to the lack of structural reform.

Short-term energy solutions seem to be prioritised over long-term sustainability. In his annual State of the Nation address delivered earlier this year, President Zuma confirmed that the government has plans in place to resolve the energy crisis. The potential plan involves a focus on locally-sourced gas power and managing the electricity demand with improved maintenance by Eskom.

Our current dilemma cannot be blamed singularly on one event or mismanagement of one area only. Ring fencing and addressing each of the issues through accountability and multifactor management should be our first priority. Employing engineering strategies is secondary. An integrated, balanced resource plan is the proposed mechanism of regulating the future energy mix in the country. This plan however, must be timeous, accessible and up-to-date.

One would assume that gas would play a bigger role and solar PV on roofs would be a driver of distributed energy. Renewable energy is a great resource, however we do need to consider all the implications of rolling out a large-scale project. When we look to Germany, we need to take heed of any potential unintended consequences of all our energy policy decisions.

Considering the time taken to build traditional base load coal and nuclear power stations, possible short-term options include renting gas ships which work similarly to gas turbines and serve as portable energy sources for those regions in critical need. This is a slightly more expensive option than gas or hydro energy alternatives but still a viable and accessible one which will get gas into the energy mix and can stimulate a longer term initiative.

The World Energy Council has defined energy sustainability based on three core dimensions, an energy trilemma, to assist countries in achieving power continuity. The trilemma framework interweaves three main links, energy security, energy equity, and environmental sustainability. Where one can’t exist successfully without the other, each having equal weighting, all three components should be met to ensure longevity and energy security.

The trilemma serves as a great framework upon which to establish a collaborative and conjoined effort, building a cohesive and constructive foundation to revamp South Africa’s energy resources. Ultimately, there is no one sure-fire method that will be the answer to South Africa’s current energy deficiency. We need to explore the different energy source options available. We can then learn from and improve what does and what does not work.

The bottom line is that everything is possible and we need to try something. Not one energy source or initiative is going to be the sustainable energy source for generations to come, however if we try all our well-planned solutions in an attempt to solve the current energy deficiency in South Africa, we will aid ourselves in getting much closer to the eventual system that will work and will provide a lasting power supply.

We must accept that we have to make the hard choices today, take action on those plans to increase power supply resourcing and not be afraid of the repercussions, rather having tangible plans in place to correct them. Our decisions today will progressively impact our future generations. We need a way of approaching the problem, not a solution to the problem as such.

Contact Contact Paul Fitzsimons, GIBB, Tel 011 519-4600,


Related Articles

  • Whatever happened to “Proudly South African”?
  • Light for Africa: a conversation with Signify’s Devan Pillay
  • Risk assessment: the key to regulating product safety?
  • The advantages of controlling synchronous motors with variable-speed drives
  • A guide to urban lighting masterplanning