South Africa: Power crisis is a sin that must be fixed, says Brian Dames

By Xolisa Phillip, in Johannesburg
Posted on Monday, 26 December 2022 19:28

Electrical workers contracted by the eThekwini Municipaltity begin repair work at the township of Umlazi after damage from flooding from days of heavy rains in Durban, on April 23, 2022. (Photo by Rajesh JANTILAL / AFP)

“The sin of not having power is something our generation should not allow and needs to be fixed,” says CEO of African Rainbow Energy and Power Brian Dames.

Dames is the former CEO of the troubled South African power utility. But on the sidelines of the German-African Business Summit, he tells The Africa Report: “I don’t comment on issues of Eskom.”

A few moments earlier, Dames was a discussant in an energy panel, sharing the stage with Rainer Baake, Germany’s special envoy for the Just Transition Partnership with South Africa. Baake is the erstwhile energy state secretary in Germany.

Dames and Baake engaged in some verbal sparring during their panel, neither pulling punches on their thoughts about the future trajectory of South Africa’s energy transition. The discussion took place against the backdrop of stage 6 load-shedding.

“I think for all of us as South Africans, it is hugely important that we focus on energy security,” Dames says. “It’s important for big business, small business.”

“We made a promise to people in South Africa that they would have electricity: it’s important we don’t take away that promise,” says Dames.

According to Dames: “I think people get too hung up about trying to restructure things.” Although he doesn’t mention Eskom by name, the power utility is in the process of restructuring its operations into generation, transmission, and distribution units.

For Dames, the crucial thing to keep in mind is that, “without this economy growing, without big companies having access to power and small businesses not being able to transact [trade], the sin of not having power is something our generation should not allow – and that needs to be fixed.”

Dames also thinks experience has clearly demonstrated that no country in the world can solve energy security issues on its own. “You need to find creative ways of making sure companies have access to energy.”

“This partnership with countries like Germany that has a focus on technology and skills … I can remember sending artisans to Germany and [them] coming back … [to] work on turbines, boilers, and generators. But now there’s new technologies,” Dames says.

These new developments make the grid in South Africa key. “We do need to learn from Germany, particularly integration. You need greener grids. You need smarter grids,” according to Dames.

“If you would integrate all the network industries in Southern Africa, with the benefits, all the way from the DRC to Mozambique, South Africa and Namibia; if you integrate all of that, you could build energy security,” Dames says.

He also ads that such an approach “can be affordable and sustainable”.

Africa development

As the modalities of Africa’s energy transition are being debated, including the region being punted as a key source market for green hydrogen and gas, Dames warns against the continent maintaining its status as an exporter only.

He says it is important that there be reciprocal benefits for the development of the region. Without this, the green wave would mimic the same patterns of the fossil fuels-driven development of the 20th century that helped propel the global north and left the south behind.

“We cannot allow that to happen again,” Dames says.

Baake says the world of energy is changing. Two decades ago, the conventional sources of energy were the cheapest and renewable energies were expensive.

“More than 90% of the global investment went into the conventional energies.” “Today, it is exactly the other way round: over 90% of the global investment in the energy sector is now going to renewable energies,” says Baake.

However, Baake says: “It’s up to the South Africans to decide what resources they use. We are not here to tell the South Africans what to do.”

“We are here to share some of the experiences we made in our transition: what went good, what went bad, which mistakes we made. We offer financial support. We offer advice. But, of course, we respect the decision of the South Africans,” Baake says.

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