Can long-duration energy storage help ease South Africa's power crisis?

Electricity price increases and rolling blackouts are causing a power crisis in South Africa. Long-duration energy storage is a reliable alternative to the grid, while offering a climate friendly solution.

Reports of an ongoing power crisis in South Africa are frequently in the news. Many countries around the world are currently struggling with cost-of-living increases and soaring energy bills, but the situation in South Africa is unique.

Interruptions and price hikes

For some time, energy prices have been spiralling out of control. In January, the state utility ESKOM had its request to the regulator for an 18.65% power price increase approved. This is just the latest in a series of steep rises. Between 2007 and 2022, electricity tariffs went up by 653% versus inflation over the same period of 129%.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that in recent polling, three-quarters of South Africans indicated that the government energy policy must prioritise economic considerations by keeping electricity prices low.

Not only is the power getting more expensive, it’s also frequently interrupted. Blackouts are having a severe effect on the entire country and load shedding has become a daily occurrence.

What is load shedding?

Load shedding involves removing power from the system to ease the strain when demand far outweighs available capacity to supply. Load shedding at level 6, which has happened recently, involves taking 6,000 megawatts (MW) of power away from the grid to achieve the necessary balance.

The punishing load shedding schedule across South Africa is causing such disruption that the government has declared a National State of Disaster to try and help deal with the problem.

What does load shedding look like for a business or household? Here’s a snapshot of the mandated schedule for one day in February of this year, in the North West province of the country. People were unable to use electricity during the times indicated.

17 Feb 2023: Load shedding in NW Province

OTTOSDAL: 02:00-04:30 & 18:00-20:30
KLERKSDORP NORTH & GUMTREES: 02:00-04:30, 10:00-12:30
& 18:00-20:30
ORKNEY: 06:00-08:30 & 22:00-00:30
KLERKSDORP MAIN & WEST: 06:00-08:30 & 22:00-00:30
HARTBEESFONTEIN: 00:00-02:30 & 16:00-18:30
JOUBERTON: 06:00-08:30, 14:00-16:30 & 22:00-00:30
STILFONTEIN, POTCH & IKAGENG: 00:00-02:30 & 16:00-18:30
VILJOENSKROON & VIERFONTEIN: 14:00-16:30 & 22:00-00:30

What’s causing the power crisis?

There are multiple factors at play. South Africa has always been reliant on coal, but plants have been breaking down or failing to work properly. Facilities lack maintenance and it’s been difficult to secure supplies and protect connecting infrastructure. Diesel for emergency back-up generators is also expensive and polluting. Finally, observers note the trend of skilled engineers leaving the country during the past few years.

What’s it like to go through this?

“The everyday practicalities of life are affected,” says Reinhardt Labuschagne, Azelio Regional Manager, SSA.

“On a personal level, there are many things to consider. You need to adjust when your family sits down for dinner, or when you’ll be able to take a shower. You can plan, because fortunately the load shedding schedule is accurate most of the time – but it can also change very quickly. The fact remains, if you take out electricity, you lose so many things otherwise taken for granted.”

“Quite often, businesses find a back-up solution. Services like hospitals need stable power for obvious reasons. But despite the resourcefulness of people – which is always impressive – most citizens have no option but to adjust.”

 “The issues we face with blackouts don’t compare to hunger or war, like we see in some parts of the world today, but it’s definitely fair to say that they limit quality of life. I’m proud that most people I know make the best of it,” adds Reinhardt.

Despite the alternative power sources, such as the diesel generators that some businesses rely on, not all industries are thriving. With no end in sight to the widespread outages, many see more difficult times ahead. One example is South Africa’s agriculture sector, with farmers and wine makers concerned about the effect of power cuts.

Challenges ahead: the power crisis is affecting many South African businesses, including vineyards.

A chance to transition

Today coal provides the majority of South Africa’s installed power generation capacity. However, coal-fired plants are failing. There is also an urgent need for countries to break their dependence on fossil fuels and cut GHG emissions to help mitigate the impacts of climate change. These drivers present a strong opportunity for renewable growth in South Africa.

Economies including the United States, Britain and the European Union, have promised South Africa $8.5 billion to assist its energy transition. The South African government is also looking to push renewable energy, with measures such as the introduction of a solar tax incentive.

However, as is the case for the clean energy transition in all geographies, it needs to be remembered that only by adding energy storage can sufficient levels of renewables be introduced.

Renewables plus energy storage

We know that a flexible and balanced energy system is vital to meet demand. Maintaining such a balance in South Africa today is the fundamental reason for load shedding. If electricity from solar and wind is to be added on a large scale, balance is once again essential to managing the new streams successfully.

Energy storage – and more specifically long-duration energy storage (LDES) – offers precisely this system flexibility and balance. LDES stores renewable energy for prolonged periods, making it available when it’s needed by the end-user.

Coal-fired power plants and South Africa’s national grid cannot be relied upon for uninterrupted supply. Additionally, electricity and fuel prices are increasing. Gaining around-the-clock access to stable clean electricity – which is also affordable – is an attractive option through storage technologies.

Clean power in South Africa

In the North West province of South Africa, a recent power outage affected ventilation systems at a poultry farm. Sadly, local media reported the deaths of 50,000 chickens.

A terrible situation such as this can be avoided with a decentralised power source. Azelio’s LDES solution, TES.POD, which is a thermal energy storage system, is part of a project in Coligny, located in the same province.

Azelio’s system at mixed farming company Wee Bee Ltd. charges from solar to supply reliable power. Moreover, it will reduce annual CO2 emission on site by 323 tonnes compared to the grid.

Reliable clean power: Azelio’s project in North West Province, South Africa.

South Africa continues to contend with its power crisis. Simultaneously, the country is striving to achieve a transformation of its energy system, to embrace a cleaner and more sustainable future.

Existing solutions can support South Africa – along with the rest of the world – in connecting consumers and businesses with dependable clean electricity. Long-duration energy storage is the technology which remains central to achieving this goal.

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