Thu Feb 7th, 2008 at 01:37:19 PM EST
IHT/JOHANNESBURG: At first, the power blackouts seemed a mere nuisance, the electricity suddenly dead for two or three hours at a time, two or three times a day. Radio announcers jocularly advised listeners to make their morning toast by vigorously rubbing two pieces of bread together and wisecracked about amorous uses for the extra darkness.
But after three weeks of chronic power failures - after regularly irregular vexations with lifeless computers, stovetops and stoplights - public forbearance has given way to outrage. This nation, long a reliable repository of cheap, plentiful electricity, finds itself pitifully short of juice
The government has confessed to an "electricity emergency," and has begun a program of rationing for industrial users. This is a mortifying turn for a nation that considers itself the powerhouse of Africa and resists comparisons to its underdeveloped, famine-plagued neighbors.
On top of the embarassment, these events show how vital the tiny (1-2 % of GDP) electricity industry is for the remaining 98-99 % of the economy and how extremely
important it is not to screw it up.
But electricity shortages, now expected to be a fact of life for the next five years, are more than a mere embarrassment. They threaten growth in a nation that accounts for a third of sub-Saharan Africa's economic output and ranks among the world's top 25 countries in gross domestic product.
A slowdown would also undermine economic growth across the region, sabotaging global efforts to reduce poverty and damaging South Africa's own drive to slash its woeful unemployment rate of 25.5 percent.
One of South Africa's largest employers, the mining industry, virtually halted production for four days in the past week because the power utility, Eskom, could not guarantee enough power to ventilate and cool the deep underground shafts.
"That's a powerful message, massively damaging to South Africa's reputation for new investment. Our country was built on the mines."
How come South Africa finds itself in this bad situation? Planning an economy is notoriuosly hard, but power generation, with the relatively stable changes in demand and long lead times for new plants is the one area where it is actually possible.
So why was South Africa blindsided?
The current crisis is the result of Eskom's insufficient capacity to generate enough power, as well as its inability to keep many of its existing plants working.
This was a predicament foretold. In 1998, a government white paper warned that at the rate the economy was growing, the nation faced serious electricity shortages by 2007 unless capacity was expanded.
"The warnings were well known, but the government was too aloof and arrogant to act," said William Mervin Gumede, author of "Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC." "This is simply disastrous for the economy. You can throw out all the goals of 6 percent economic growth."
Well, bad government is the explanation, and there's isn't anything to do about the time lost. Now the focus must be on solving the problems. And well, someone has obviously managed to light a fire
Twelve nuclear power reactors could be ordered at once by struggling South African generator Eskom. Today Areva and Westinghouse both submitted one proposal each for two or three reactors, and another for 12 or 17.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, the South Africans are appearantly feeling positively French right now, considering ordering a batch of 20 000 MW of nuclear power.
Well, one thing at a time.
The first proposal is dubbed 'Nuclear 1' and covers one nuclear power plant to generate 3000-3500 MWe. Basically, that equates to two Areva EPR units, which generate 1600 MWe each; or three Westinghouse AP1000s at 1150 MWe each.
This is in itself really big.
South Africa has an annual power consumption of about 250 TWh. Of this, only 14 TWh are generated at the two French PWR's at Koeberg, the rest being coal.
This first project would boost South African nuclear generation from 14 TWh to about 40 TWh, almost tripling the output.
And the second one...
The second and most exciting proposals are to come later this year. The two reactor vendors will each make a proposal to Eskom covering a potential fleet of new reactors to a total of 20,000 MWe. That works out to about 12 EPR units or 17 AP1000s.
Nuclear output would rise from 14 TWh to 170 TWh.
To put this in perspective, the entire power consumption of the Netherlands is 100 TWh, Sweden is about 160 TWh and Spain is 300 TWh.
20 000 MW nuclear would completely change the South African power system, which today consists of 36 000 MW of coal.
Koeberg, the only nuclear power plant in Africa.