The Jacob Marley column: Christmas wishes

November 12th, 2013, Published in Articles: Energize


As usual at this time of the year, I went to visit the Three Ghosts of Christmas to enquire what their wishes in this season of goodwill would be.

The senior Ghost of Christmas Past was naturally hankering back to the good old days of sixpacks, cheap coal and even cheaper electricity in abundant and secure supply. It looks like his wishes might be true for a long time to come with Coal 3 and the awesome nuclear fleet on the horizon. Why not accept the inevitable and make the best of it? After all, nuclear is environmentally friendly (ask the British Prime Minister) and solutions for nuclear waste are not as insurmountable as they once seemed (ask the American President). The Japanese tsunami was a freak incident and really, how many people were directly killed by exposure to radiation? Every year, hundreds of coal miners die and thousands of motorists are killed on the world’s freeways. Should we not ban motorised traffic, smoking, sugar and alcohol before banning nuclear power?

Coal has become equally environmentally friendly (ask the Chinese Premier). What with flue gas desulphurisation and scrubbing and carbon sequestration, the flue gas from a modern chimney is almost fresher than the air in some large cities. Think of all the downstream industries this could create. For instance, it would force us to build more dams because all this needs huge amounts of water. Think above all of the economies of scale. If Eskom succeeds in becoming a master builder of large projects once again, would it not make sense to keep that momentum going? That would alleviate all the worries about project delays and cost overruns. Besides, no one can argue that large power stations are cheaper to run than small ones. For base load, of course.

But let’s admit that all is not well in the industry, said the Ghost of Christmas Past. We need to get back to a flatter structure and a leaner workforce. So my wish is for a thorough shaking up and a re-organisation. That should sort it all out.

The Ghost of Christmas Present only wanted to resolve the present crises. “That’s a big enough wish as it is,” he said. “What with municipalities owing billions, delays in the commissioning of Medupi and Kusile (and even Ingula) growing exponentially, the looming demands of a huge and expensive nuclear programme, a faltering economy (even if this is denied to be caused by electricity shortages) and rising electricity prices, what more could we possibly want?”

So he was all for fixing the obvious. It wouldn’t take long, he argued, and it wouldn’t cost much. Transfer the undertakings of failed municipalities to neighbouring functional ones. Seeing the sort of laws parliamentarians pass these days, and the looming elections, that should not be too difficult. Write off the bad debt. Everybody does it, so why not the electricity industry? We have to keep up with the best, you know, even if we are no longer there. My wish, the Ghost of Christmas Present continued, would include setting up regional conferences in Europe and China, preferably in Lisbon, Moscow or Hong Kong. The whole question of Grand Inga, Angolan oil and Mozambican and Namibian gas (but of course not Karoo fracking) should be put on the table and discussed from all angles, taking multifaceted contingencies into account. International working groups should be set up to tackle the integration issues on an ongoing basis. Next, get a pack of high-powered cadres in to sort out the big projects. Ex-minsters at the very least. Centralise all project management decisions like was done with the planning decisions. Put big projects under the National Key Points Act and the Protection of State Information Bill so that nothing can appear in the press that has not been officially cleared first. That is the way to manage big blunders in peace and quiet. Budgets to form part of the Public Works Department, naturally.

Application for new electricity connections can be dealt with by introducing a capital contribution levy for generation, transmission, distribution and head office (executive bonuses and other disbursements) so that the user pays principle can be applied in no uncertain terms. Perhaps electricity tolls should be considered as well. Finally, he was earnestly wishing for a commission of enquiry or a National Inter-Ministerial Cabinet Energy Cluster Coordination Committee, the sooner the better.

The Ghost of Christmas Future shook his head at all this. The future looks bleak, he said, so there’s not much hope of your short-term solutions coming to anything. To go back to the past is impossible. So the only way is forward. My wish is for expanded horizons and lateral thinking. First, there is technology. As I’ve said before, everything is becoming smaller. That trend is bound to increase. Secondly, there is innovation. Don’t forget, without Edison inventing the incandescent light bulb, and the move away from DC distribution, practical use of electricity was initially limited. Thirdly, there are costs. In spite of what most people believe, these are decreasing in real terms in areas that really matter.

Fourthly, the environment. Whether one believes in global warming or not, that is not what matters. What matters is what the rest of the world believes about global warming and the pressures they will put on anyone not of the same mind. Fifthly, encourage more holistic thinking. Don’t use electricity for applications it was never intended for. Don’t use large HV networks to charge cell phones. Use wind and waves to pump water and store it. Gravity will do the rest. Use biotechnology to make gas for cooking and heating. Sixth, encourage efficiency. The elephant in the room when conventional power generation systems are considered is efficiency. At the very best, Medupi can deliver just under 40% efficiency. If the waste heat that is blown into the Bushveld air can be recovered, it will double the output of the station. There are only a handful of co-generation plants using industrial waste heat. There are virtually no heat pumps in many large office complexes. Few people care about waste heat. My wish is to change that mindset.

Lastly, improve technology, especially renewables. All manner of solar technology is sprouting out of the ground, but it needs careful nurturing. Don’t rely on wind for base load. For that, big is still the only beautiful. Think further. Whatever happened to the dreams of harnessing the solar wind? Whither fusion power? That is where the real future lies. That’s what we should all wish for.

And until that happens, Sir, I remain, with my very best seasonal wishes, your humble and obedient servant

Jacob Marley