Disaster I: All Charged Up.

Let us for a moment consider the problem of South Africa’s electrical requirements and the South African government’s proposal to resolve this problem.
Abundant electrical power would be central to the construction of a “developmental state”. If we want industrial development, we need electricity. If we need a reliable inter-city and municipal public transport network, we need electricity. (Dependence on trucks, buses and taxis is what causes our horrendous road-death rate and also boosts our trade deficit because of the need to import oil.) If we want to improve household conditions, we need electricity. Everything desirable in the future evolution of South Africa goes back to the need for the level of abundance of electricity which we possessed from the 1970s, when the state overestimated South African economic growth and budgeted for a gigantic electricity demand which did not arrive until thirty years later.
Self-evidently, we need more electrical generating capacity than we now have. Even if the power outages of 2007-9 were largely driven by corporate and political corruption, they reflected the fact that power demand growth was reaching a point at which power outages were at least credible threats. At the moment, the electricity company is proposing to spend nearly 500 billion rand on developing less than ten billion watts of power, a rate of far more than R50 a watt. Obviously, somebody is pocketing a large fraction of this, and equally obviously, somebody ought to be looking into this, and equally obviously, nobody wishes to look into this because they are being paid off by whoever is doing the pocketing. We don’t need to be Marxist geniuses to recognise this. Government, electricity company and business (especially their propagandists) are in cahoots to rip off the public.
Recently, the government unveiled its strategy to sort out all our electricity problems by 2030. Of course, this strategy did not say what would be done with the electricity — that would have been too much to ask for. But it did make some proposals about where the electricity should come from.
How did they do this? We have a Ministry of Minerals and Energy. This Ministry is supposed to regulate the activities of the private mining companies and energy companies, and of the parastatal (but really, apparently, all but privatised) energy company. Therefore it is supposed to contain people who know what they are doing. But they did not know this well enough to be able to develop a strategy to sort out our electricity problems, even though this could have been done by one of the Creator’s cats in its spare time from warming its tummy in the sun.
Instead, they outsourced the development of the plan to ESCOM, the corrupt ur-privatised parastatal responsible for the waste of money and the fraudulent power-outages. This was remarkably similar in behaviour to that of George W Bush when he handed authority for energy supply over to his Vice-President, the construction and defense industry magnate Dick Cheney, who in turn handed authority for planning development over to ENRON, the corrupt power company which speedily collapsed owing to incompetence and criminality. There was quite a lot of outrage over this behaviour by Bush and Cheney in the United States. There was no outrage in South Africa over this behaviour by Zuma and company in South Africa. So utterly have we abandoned any desire to rule ourselves effectively, that we are even beneath that hapless kakocracy which decays between Tijuana and Niagara.
So the fox was put in charge of the henhouse, and unsurprisingly, presented a plan for the most effective slaughtering and dividing-up of its contents. This plan was apparently predicated on the absurd lies told by Jacob Zuma at Copenhagen about how South Africa would somehow reduce its carbon dioxide emissions immensely by 2014, which was not going to happen. At any rate, the end product was a plan which (according to Kevin Davie, the Mail and Guardian’s corporate cheerleader) shifts us from 88% coal, 6,5% nuclear and 5,5% other (mainly gas turbines and hydroelectric) to 48% coal, 14% nuclear, 16% “renewables” and 22% “other” by 2030.
Let’s ponder this a bit. Nuclear in South Africa is Koeberg, which is 1,8 gigawatts (thousand million watts, or GW). If that’s 6,5% of the total, then our total is about 28GW. Of which coal makes up 24.64 GW. The new coal power plants, which are costing all that money, will push that up to about 30GW at least. So assuming that in 2010 coal is 30GW, and this is 48% of the total, that means that the total will be 63GW. The proposal is, therefore, to increase our power output in twenty years by 125%.
That’s impressive, considering that it costs R450 billion to generate 10GW by coal plants — the cheapest available, supposedly — and therefore the plan to create 35 extra GW will cost R1,575 trillion. Well, at least Jacob and company, and that company in this case is ESCOM, aren’t thinking small.
But hold. We aren’t talking about more coal plants. We are talking about 8.8GW in nuclear (7 additional nuclear GW even if we weren’t decommissioning Koeberg, which would be 46 by 2030 and thus a decade past its design limit). We are talking 10 GW of “renewables”, meaning direct solar or wind, all of which will have to be built in the next 20 years because these “renewables” are currently insignificant. We are talking 13.8GW of “other”. At the moment, this “other” is only 1.5GW, virtually all hydropower. So in 20 years, we have to build 29GW of power plants which are immensely more expensive than coal-powered; of this, the nuclear plants are probably the cheapest, costing only half as much again as a coal plant (although they have the problem that we would have to import the fuel, whereas the coal plants are fuelled from domestic sources) as opposed to much more costly wind and solar, which (if gold-plated, which appears to be the current plan — all those carbon-fibre-blade windmills one sees here and there bought from Europe) costs considerably over double what a coal plant costs.
Are we, then, going to be able to do this? Well, for a start, we don’t have the infrastructure to produce enough concrete for the dams we will need. We cannot manufacture most of the machinery for the other power plants, whether nuclear or coal or renewable. We will probably not even be able to produce all the material to house and found all these plants. Therefore, in order to do all this in twenty years, we have to either develop a great industrial base, or we have to import almost everything which we will need to get this done. In other words, substantially more than two trillion rands’ worth of goods, something like a whole year of gross domestic product, will have to be imported over a twenty year period. A hundred billion a year of imports. Two arms deals a year for the duration of twenty years, to put it another way.
The Creator doesn’t think it can be done. It seems quite likely that our ports and our rail network wouldn’t be able to handle the extra traffic. So, firstly, we almost certainly don’t have the money, and secondly, we only doubtfully possess the capacity to get the work done if we find the money. (Do we even have the engineers and other qualified personnel to undertake this gigantic project? Or are we going to hire the personnel, too, from elsewhere?)
Of course, all this can be done. We can start a massive investment now. But unfortunately we are already investing extensively in important stuff for the Medupi plant. And we have a couple of other projects on the go, too. So, basically, if we are to accomplish this transformation of our entire electricity generating capacity, we have to start immediately at the project of trying to fund it, trying to avoid having to devote too much of our resources to imports so that we can no longer afford to import the other things which we need at the same time, trying to get enough of our people working on the project so that the expense of this whole affair, an eighth of our entire national budget, is not to drain away money which could be used on creating jobs. But also, of course, getting the general public on board. And making sure in all this tremendous project that only a small fraction of the money is drained away on corruption or mismanagement, because if only one percent goes on corruption, that would be twenty billion rand.
There is no sign that any of this is happening. Indeed, there is no sign of plans to increase taxation or float bonds or do any of the things which will be necessary in order to accomplish the funding for this gigantic project. Needless to say, there is no sign of any attempt to direct public or private investment towards laying the basis for accomplishing any aspect of this gigantic project. What is being done, apparently, is what was being done before — namely, continuing to build the one big coal-powered project, trying to decide whether or not to build another big coal-powered project called Kusile, trying to decide whether or not to start considering whether or not to build a big nuclear-powered project, and pretending to care about whether or not to build some large renewable projects.
The renewable plan is supposedly to have 10 000GWh a year by 2014, which is impossible as even the renewable enthusiasts. There are vast imaginary plans in places like Upington, but these are certainly pipe-dreams even though someone is making a little money out of doing the environmental impact assessments for these projects which are not going to be built. But none of this is going to happen. All that it is doing is enabling a handful of people who pretend to be green to acquire consultancies where they can pretend to work. These people appear to be trying very hard to sustain the propaganda of the fossil-fuel industry and of famous dead idiots like Michael Crichton, that all conservationists are corrupt and greedy imbeciles. (Something of this also turns up in Julian Barnes’ Solar; perhaps he has met a few of this kind of person.)
But the grimmest fact of all is that most of this is just a cloak for increased private involvement, via such things as the mad plan to get large numbers of people to install solar water-heaters, supposedly subsidised, but without any guarantee that the subsidy will be paid (the money for the subsidy often seems to be filched, or diverted to other projects, even before the plan is implemented). Meanwhile, these heaters are counted as if they were solar power plants, which they aren’t. It is easy for a corrupt government to pretend that it is doing something when it isn’t, and to fool a public which is often underinformed. And as if that weren’t enough, it is particularly easy for a corrupt government to abrogate its responsibilities and suggest that business can take up the slack. Then, when business fails to do so, the government can tell its supporters that this was business’s fault, while business, which controls the press, can tell its supporters and anyone else who will listen that it is the government’s fault. And if the lights go out, at least we have someone to blame, and meanwhile someone has made a pile of money.
Which appears to be all that the Zuma administration cares about any more.


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