Thursday, January 17, 2008

Immediate Solutions to the Power Crisis

The natural reaction to South Africa's power crisis has been the blame game. Who's fault is it? Why was nothing done? How long is it going to go on for?

What is really called for in times like this is a solution mentality. It's time for all of us to sit down and find a way ahead, to get ourselves out of that "blame" rut and change gears. Here, to kick off, is a set of solutions to consider for this crisis.

No doubt there needs to be some action at Eskom headquarters, and I won't say much here. We need to keep in mind that most of the power supply expansions will take several years to implement - this is not bureaucracy, but complex technical challenges. Nuclear power stations don't get built overnight. In my mind, wind turbines seem to be the "quickest route to market", but the Western Cape seacoast is possibly the only reasonable location and that area would need to be linked to the power grid. Wind farms have a limited contribution and are very expensive.

Leaving Eskom for the moment, there are several contingency plans. At a basic level, load shedding schedules HAVE to be communicated effectively and stuck to. To some degree we can all manage with some load scheduling when we know it will happen. Industry can reschedule shifts; ordinary citizens can plan social time instead of TV.

The simple truth is that nearly every household in South Africa can cut its power usage by 30% and nearly every industry by 5-10%. This is not the idyllic lifestyle, but you'd rather have continuous power than what we have now. In households, a key strategy revolves around geysers. Firstly, most geysers can be turned off for half the day. If you as a family bath/shower at night, you set the timer to go at 10pm and turn the geyser back on at 3pm in the afternoon. Secondly, geysers and hot water pipes can be wrapped in insulation.

There are numerous other household improvements available on a smaller scale. Lightbulbs can be replaced and lighting can be rearranged so that fewer bulbs light the same area. Where possible, motion sensor lights can replace permanent outdoor floodlights. Although kettles are a big power draw, I'm not sure about latest developments here. Anyone?

If I was in government now, I would institute a new door-to-door power improvement advisor service. I would have agents visit each house for a 10-minute discussion on ways to improve power usage. I prefer door-to-door because it communicates to a home owner that they are personally responsible, compared to some generic message flashed across a TV screen that is effectively a "everybody but me" message.

As a last step, South Africa can go the route of Giuliani's New York - begin fining abusers. This is not a healthy first-up solution and that's not the kind of country I would want to live in. Healthy lifestyles must come from the heart, not from the government's whip. However, there are times when strong measures are needed and if no other options are available, power caps can be set on individual houses and geysers can require efficiency licensing.

Our home has been very efficient for a long time - lights stay off when they're not needed, light bulbs have been replaced with the power-saving type, computers get turned off and a full kettle is only boiled when everyone is drinking. However, we have recognised that our geyser could use insulation and possibly be turned off during the day. If everyone adopts an attitude of personal responsibility, then we can say: what power crisis?

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