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Power Outages Renew Interest in Renewable Energy

In this 2011 file photo, Eskom coal power stations generate power for South Africa's electrical grid. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)
In this 2011 file photo, Eskom coal power stations generate power for South Africa's electrical grid. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)
South African Power Outages Bring New Interest in Renewable Energy
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South Africa’s state power company, Eskom, is struggling to meet demand for electricity in the country. The company has put in place an aggressive plan for limiting the amount of electricity it supplies to prevent a collapse of the electrical system.

However, the unpredictability of the system is causing some South Africans to become self-sufficient. These people have begun producing energy in their own homes. Many are choosing renewable forms of energy.

The South African state power company Eskom has a big problem. The company provides about 95% of South Africa’s electricity. But Eskom officials have said there is a strong probability of controlled power cuts almost every day for the next few months. They say the company may have to do this to avoid a total collapse of the system, known as an electrical grid.

Observers say a number of problems are partly to blame. They include a failure to make much-needed repairs, a lack of investment and non-cost reflective tariffs, or taxes. The company has added seven million people to the electrical grid since 1994. Delays in building new power centers have meant that Eskom has overextended the operation of 27 old power plants.

Some South Africans are considering other power sources to reduce their dependence on the electrical grid. Currently, renewable energy provides only about two percent of the country’s power requirements. South Africa needs about 30,000 megawatts of electricity every day.

Engineer Greg Ball lives in Johannesburg. He depends on Eskom to provide five percent of the power his family uses. Solar energy meets the rest of their demand for surplus electricity used to power two electric cars. He says it is good for the environment.

“You have to start developing an environmental conscience…I don’t want to be somebody who goes through their whole career and doing the same old, same old and dumping all these problems and issues onto my kids. If we can make just a very small difference individually, collectively it can be significant.”

Some people say that taking oneself off the grid is only for people who can pay for it. Greg Ball spent over $30,000 placing solar technology equipment on his home. He says the technology has paid for itself. He says he saves about $7,500 in fuel every year.

Starting costs are high. Yet, several solar companies in Johannesburg told VOA that recent power outages have helped create a notable increase in interest.

Ryan Beech is part of a Go Green Project for Parkhurst, a wealthy area in Johannesburg. The project aims to take 2,000 houses off the electrical grid and have them using renewable energy by 2020.

He says, “We are currently looking at all the technology out there from hydro to solar, (and) wind.”

That would hurt local utility companies. Local governments earn about $2 billion a year from water and electricity. There is likely to be resistance to losing 2,000 customers who pay some of the highest rates in the country.

Energy experts say South Africa must seek cleaner energy and end its dependence on coal. South Africa is also the fourth-largest coal exporting country in the world.

Energy expert Chris Yelland argues the government should be looking at more environmentally-friendly energy choices. He says, “There are a lot of good reasons why we should diversify away from coal and also a lot of good reasons, in my opinion, to diversify away from a single monopoly electricity supplier.”

Eskom’s financial problems could mean higher fees for customers in the future. That could cause more people will turn to renewable energy.

I’m Mario Ritter.

Reporter Gillian Parker in Johannesburg prepared this story. Mario Ritter wrote it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

plants - n., the land, buildings, machinery, apparatus, and fixtures employed in carrying on a trade or an industrial business

self-sufficient - adj., able to maintain oneself or itself without outside aid; capable of providing for one's own needs

customers - n., one that buys a product or service