The Jacob Marley column: A very ingenious plan

April 9th, 2015, Published in Articles: Energize


My spirits were lifted recently when acquaintances of mine told me about a Very Ingenious Plan (VIP) to reform the electricity supply industry in this country. My acquaintances are not at liberty to divulge their sources, of course, but they claim they are impeccable. Indeed, they say, the evidence for the success of the VIP is already here for all to see.

First thing I must explain, if you’ll indulge me Sir, is that it takes time and effort to change large,  deeply entrenched and once successful enterprises with long histories and even stronger traditions. There is no business school strategy nor colour of the ocean that does the trick. Rather, it is often a confluence of ideas, changes in technology and the right moment that brings it all together under the right leadership. It requires the right climate, so to speak. That is what the VIP is all about.

That is probably the reason, Sir, why we did not all rush out to install solar panels on our roofs and change our cars to hybrids when we heard about climate change. Even Copenhagen could not make us do that, for the time was not ripe and economics were in the way.  Antagonists argued at the time that it was cheaper to put up more coal-fired stations, or even nuclear ones, if you could persuade someone else to finance and put them up at their own cost and risk.
Secondly, it is natural for people to put off decisions until they absolutely have to. Why buy new socks if there is someone who will darn the old ones for you? Why buy a new car when the old one is still clunking along fine? Why worry about water when there is plenty coming out the tap? Why worry about electricity while the lights are – mostly – on at the flick of a switch?
So the first goal of the VIP, as I understand it, is to create the right climate for advancing the case for change. The most powerful way to do this is, it was judged, was to enlist the entire industry’s help.  A bold start was made in 2006, unfortunately in the Western Cape, so nobody took much notice. But this was soon escalated, and a real opportunity came in January 2008, when heavy rains flooded the coal feed to key power stations in Mpumalanga. It was dark for hours on end and calls for industry reform started flooding in at last.
Unfortunately it was a bit of a false start. In spite of the spike in generator and inverter sales and a few start-up solar and wind initiatives, nothing much happened beyond talking. Because we could surely not jeopardize our status as a World Cup country, the VIP next suffered a further temporary setback because the lights refused to go out for long enough to really get the message across. But the VIP is robust enough to weather a few storms.
Then Eskom launched a valiant effort to get things going. As turmoil from the top rippled through the organisation, it affected several vital functions like operations, maintenance and procurement. The rating agencies came to the table by cutting onerous ratings. It was as if war had been declared. Gallant customers strode into the breach with their well-worn wallets and added to the pressure for change. The front broadened rapidly as old positions crumbled and dwindled.
In the background, emerging forces were gathering. As part of the early stages of the VIP, a series of bidding processes was launched in 2010 for independent renewable energy power producers, mainly in the wind and solar sectors, but a sprinkling of others too. Soon, plans on drawing boards were moving off to the open veld of the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape, which are now becoming centres of distributed generation in spite of all the red tape, technical difficulties, obfuscation and downright obstruction.
This does not impede the unfolding of the VIP, for these sterling efforts are still not a match for the dwindling availability of Eskom plant. We must remain be patient for while still. It must be emphasised, of course, that the heroic efforts of municipal undertakings were in direct support of this initiative with their crumbling distribution infrastructure, chaotic billing and inability to pay their own bills.
The next phase of the VIP is already unfolding as I pen these words. More and more independent power producers are starting to make their presence felt. Whereas Eskom has added 100 MW of renewable capacity to its fleet, the independents have put up more than 1500 MW, and more is in the pipeline. Energy efficiency and energy sufficiency have been known to move to the top of the agenda of businesses when it starts to affect the bottom line. There is lots of roof space which could be put to good use to help grow the capacity which Eskom has shed.
Industry leaders are waking up to the realities of doing business without a reliable and cheap supply of grid electricity. Sibanye Gold, for one, has announced a sizeable self-sufficiency program. Supermarkets and banks are buying diesel generators to ride out load-shedding, though wider commitment is still vague and needs firming up. Even government departments are working towards independence from grid power, and that is just the beginning. There is more work to be done,  but the VIP has several initiatives maturing in the wings, some of which have been put into action recently and which are sure to foster the right climate for change.
There is, it follows, no reason to despair, but much hope for a sunny South Africa. The green shoots are already peeking out of the scorched earth after the conflagrations of recent times. Or, if one prefers another metaphor, the ship is slowly turning on the tide, and guided by the VIP, will no doubt find safe anchorage somewhere.
As one of the heroes in a long-forgotten television series about a group of go-getters used to remark: “Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?”, I would heartily endorse that sentiment.

So as the Very Ingenious Plan unfolds, I remain,

Your very humble and obedient servant

Jacob Marley

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