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Posted on Monday, 05 January 2015 15:19

Eskom's energy saving sarcasm

Photo©Screenshot YouTubeIn the midst of a gripping electricity shortage, South Africa's power utility appears at a loss on how to handle the crisis. The company's utopian view of South African society, which is glaringly obvious in its media communications, comes at the expense of the very people it is targeting. Writes Sarah Bracking.

Can you imagine a South Africa where domestic cleaners are hurrying home to adjust the timers on their pool pumps and cook their ready meals in the microwave while making sure the computer isn't left on standby? Or where middle class homes with dusty sports-filled children are going to turn off the geezer between 5 and 9 pm? 

we didn't leave the stone age because we ran out of stones

Welcome to the strange world of ESKOM's 'know your number' campaign, promoting energy efficiency in South Africa. To footage of a woman ironing and doing the washing we are told "educating your helper will save you electricity and she can use those skills in her own home".

Last time I looked most 'helpers' didn't have microwaves, tumble driers – that they shouldn't use when the sun is out – or any of the accoutrements needed to be 'educated'. Or even mostly electricity itself.

Maybe Eskom are thinking of a future world of a South Africa free of its chronic racialised poverty? Or in a world where this type of lifestyle for all has heated the planet to a fossilized frazzle?

At Eskom energy efficiency is explained further in a specialist online brochure, which assumes the customer already owns a microwave to use for 'small and medium portions of food' and urges that we all "Use specialised appliances for specialised tasks – for instance, always make toast in a toaster and never in the oven."

Further titbits include the advice to "make regular pool maintenance a priority; it will contribute to optimise the electricity usage of your pool pump" and "Invest in motion sensor lamps for security lighting rather than leaving conventional lights burning all night" and the all appropriate "Switch off garden and security lights during the day".

No mention of turning off electric fences. Just think of all the energy efficiency that a drop in inequality could produce when the crime rate dropped accordingly?

Both Eskom and 'know your number' agree that shower time should be limited to seven minutes –seemingly without variance to body size or the amount of dirt attached, and without apparent heed to the rather limited amount of shower options available to the South African population.

In fact for people who live around Eskom's coal-fired power stations, which contribute over 85 per cent of the electricity to the grid, such advice to be energy efficient is, well, as insulting as it must be to the newly 'educated' cleaners.

For example, in the Highveld, home to 12 of Eskom's coal-fired power stations, a recent study by the NGO groundWork shows that "51% of deaths due to respiratory illness and 54% deaths due to cardiovascular disease, related to outdoor pollution in the area, can be attributed to Eskom".

The cost to the government's public health system is R230 billion, while Eskom is arguing that it can't afford the R200 billion it claims pollution abatement would cost it.

Instead, it has applied for 'rolling postponements' for improvements to 14 of its coal-fired power stations, when air quality levels are below World Health Organisation standards and frequently exceeded. Eskom wants to "achieve 57% compliance with the national emission standards by 2026". Not so ambitious there then.

And the biggest insult? Most homes in the Highveld can't afford electricity so are forced to burn coal domestically, facing "a double burden to their health, both when indoors and outdoors".

Meanwhile South Africa has risen to be 14th in the world ranking of CO2 emitters - without counting all the coal exports burnt somewhere else – although the USA and China together still contribute a huge 44 per cent of the world total.

Perhaps a community engagement officer from Eskom would like to go and educate the population of the Highveld about the energy saving contribution of pool pump timers? Or maybe go to the communities in Durban, mostly poor, who lost electricity on Christmas morning for not less than three days, and all their Christmas food and cheer along with it.

An even bigger picture

Maybe some compensation is in order from their R7 billion profit pot from the financial year end to 31st March 2014.

But let's take a look at an even bigger picture: why investing in coal and oil is not really in South Africa's interests in the first place, because the energy economy is changing rapidly.

First the price of solar and renewables has been dropping fast, with the cost of solar panels slashed by two-thirds between 2006 and 2013, leading to a situation in Europe where the traditional dirty utilities of the fossil fuel age managed to lose over 500 million euros in market capitalisation in just five years.

Grid rules allow renewables to feed the grid first and they are doing so well at it, and relatively cheaply too.

In fact in the future we might date the death knell of fossil fuels to Germany on 16th June 2013, when a bright and breezy day saw solar and wind produce 28.0 gigawatts (GW) of power - and the grid is mandated to take electricity from them before the coal and nuclear - and the grid could only take 45GW without becoming unstable and capacity peaked at 51GW.

As the Economist explains "so prices went negative to encourage cutbacks and protect the grid from overloading" and "The wholesale price of electricity fell to minus €100 per megawatt hour (MWh). That is, generating companies were having to pay the managers of the grid to take their electricity.

In 2008, the top European energy utilities were worth $1.3 trillion, but by 2013, they were worth less than half that. The Economist summarise that "Renewables have not just put pressure on margins. They have transformed the established business model for utilities".

As Michael K Dorsey, Interim Director, Program on Energy & Environment at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies once said, "we didn't leave the stone age because we ran out of stones".

Dorsey was making the point that leaving the fossil fuel age doesn't mean dragging up the last drop of oil.

We can also remember the good news though: with regulation, yep that good old-fashioned thing, the European Union mandated the design of an electricity grid that is pro-renewables, and the sky didn't fall in!

So let's remind the South African government: investing in new coal-powered and nuclear electricity generating stations when the market itself shows solar and wind renewables are vastly cheaper seems foolhardy.



Sarah Bracking

Sarah Bracking

Professor Sarah Bracking is the current holder of the South African Research Chair in Applied Poverty Reduction Assessment at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Research Director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value, University of Manchester. She is editor of Corruption and Development (Palgrave, 2007), author of Money and Power (Pluto, 2009) and The Financialisation of Power in Africa (Routledge, 2012).

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