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Elections are traditionally the time that politicians, some who are seldom seen outside their big cars with tinted windows, get outside to be seen as leaders who are in tune with the electorate. In other countries, kissing a couple of babies and knocking on doors would do it but in South Africa where the problems tend to be more pressing, it takes more. The issue of Afrikaans as an indigenous language has even prompted President Cyril Ramaphosa to speak Afrikaans to communities in the Cape and, has led to many internet memes. Finding issues the electorate feels passionate about that are touching their lives every day is usually a sure way of hitting the ball out of the park. Currently, in South Africa, the most pressing issues for a local government election is Eskom and loadshedding. To say that it is the Achilles’ heel of the ANC is an understatement. It is more like a giant piñata that opposition parties can shoot with a laser gun without a blindfold. The DA’s young Cape Town mayoral candidate has come up with a humdinger – Geordin Hill-Lewis is running on the promise of no more loadshedding for Cape Town. He explained to Alec Hogg how he would achieve it. – Linda van Tilburg
It’s easy to defeat loadshedding:
My first campaign that I fought in as a staff member back then was on Helen [Zille]’s campaign when she was running for mayor of Cape Town in November 2005. We had our very first loadshedding, although the term wasn’t introduced until Alec Erwin infamously described it as a bolt in the generator and kaboom! That was really the first rolling blackout that South Africa experienced. And that was November 2005. So, as you said, more than 15 years ago. There’s a whole generation of kids who have grown up without knowing that we once didn’t have loadshedding. I find it outrageous. I really do.
I think South Africa has lowered our standards. Most people actually find this acceptable; not so much acceptable, as part of their lives that we have to put up with, even though it is possible and I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say this – to defeat loadshedding because all the technology is already there. In fact, it was there 15 years ago. We are way behind the rest of the world on renewable energy. Cape Town is one of the sunniest places and one of the windiest places. Yet, here we sit 15 years and hundreds of billions of rands in expenditure and bailouts later, still with loadshedding. I’m absolutely committed to this, and I believe technologically it’s actually imminently doable using renewable power and battery and pumped storage.
Cape Town, the only reliable place for power in the country:
We’ve got this smallest opening in the door for municipalities to start buying new power independently. I think what Cape Town is going to do, is move very quickly and aggressively to kick open that door and start buying power independently from Eskom. Crucially, buying power on its own doesn’t stop loadshedding but if we start buying storage capacity from independent providers, when you do have loadshedding, you have the storage capacity to offset that loadshedding. And that’s what Cape Town already does, using the Steenbras Dam storage system. We really have what is essentially the biggest battery in the country, and that helps us to offset stage one loadshedding. This is why there is no loadshedding in Cape Town when the rest of the country is on stage one. Ideally what we really want to do is expand our storage capacity in-house by continuing to invest in Steenbras and sourcing from independent providers. We must expand our storage and power capacity. I know that it is ambitious but I’m absolutely committed to this, to make ourselves free from loadshedding. Now that’s going to take some very focused work over the next few years. But if we do, as you said at the beginning, what a boon that would be for Cape Town’s economy as the only place in the country with reliable electricity.
Can Cape Town stop relying on Eskom?
I’m not talking about switching off Eskom entirely. Cape Town uses about 2,000 megawatts at peak times, so it’s a huge amount of power. We don’t have to replace that in full. Remember, for every stage of loadshedding, you’ve got to switch off 100 megawatts per stage in Cape Town. So stage one is a 100 megawatt stage, stage two, 200 megawatts and so on. What we need to do is replace that loadshedding proportion, reduce our reliance on Eskom by that loadshedding portion so that we can protect consumers and residents from loadshedding. And then over time, that’s a longer-term vision, to reduce reliance on Eskom even beyond that so that we can bring prices down. Eskom is now one of the most expensive providers of electricity when renewable energy is coming in at a fraction of the cost.
We already have 100 megawatts from Steenbras and the most serious loadshedding we’ve had in the last year, I think, has been level four. If we can get up to 300 or even close to 400 megawatts of additional capacity, then we can pretty much effectively say Cape Town is free from all of the ordinary, or so-called ordinary – it’s never ordinary – but what we can now consider ordinary loadshedding in South Africa. And if it gets worse than that, if it gets up to stage five or six or seven, as we’ve had once before a couple of years ago, then you know that’s going to take longer to get there. It’s definitely going to take longer to get there. But if we can say to South Africans that when the rest of the country is on stage three or four, you will have nothing, I think that would just be an amazing thing.
Regulations and Mantashe still the hurdle:
I have a deluge of foreign investors, foreign governments, local investors contacting me every time I do an interview about this, saying we are ready and waiting, we just need the regulatory approvals to get this done. All the technology is there. It is much cheaper than Eskom can ever provide. It’s much cheaper than the city is currently paying. In fact, there is even concessional finance available. They are sloshes of money around the world available for free renewable energy at very concessional rates. So, raising the money is not a problem. The technology is not a problem. It is all politics in South Africa, and this is what I find so outrageous. That you and I and millions of other South Africans sit in darkness every evening because Minister Gwede Mantashe refuses to speed up this reform process and introduce a truly competitive and open energy market to allow cities to buy from the lowest cost producer. I just think that it’s time for us to say we are not going to accept this outrage of loadshedding when all of the answers are so easy just a fossil fuel-obsessed national minister is refusing to usher in a competitive energy market. We’ll move ahead and push that door open ourselves.
Power storage facility would also be needed:
My interpretation is that nothing is stopping us. We should do this as quickly as we possibly can. But as I said, it’s not just about generating new power, because if you have, let’s say, 100 megawatts of new power removed from the national grid, that doesn’t stop loadshedding. You’ve got to have a way of storing that power for when loadshedding occurs. So, the procurement of storage capacity is just as important as the procurement of independent power. That is really the key technological unlock that we need to stop loadshedding.
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