Electric Roundabout: Southern African Countries Are Moving Rapidly to Become Energy Self-Reliant on the One Hand and Vital Electricity Suppliers to South Africa on the Other. Tom Nevin Reports

Article excerpt

In a quirk of history, South Africa's satellite countries will soon become important suppliers of electricity to the subcontinental economic giant after nearly a century of reliance on South African generators.

The weaning of Swaziland, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique off the South African power grid was sudden and brutal when the udder ran dry. Even countries farther away--Zambia, Tanzania, Angola and the DRC--felt the wrench when South Africa's energy supply failed and they, too, were kicked out of the nest.

To give them their due, the fledglings soon learned how to fly and Botswana, Zambia and Namibia, in particular, were quickly off the mark in planning and building energy capacity of their own. They will soon be implementing ambitious homegrown electricity-generating projects that will transform them from energy dependants to surplus-capacity providers.

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It is as if Southern Africa has been jolted out of a deep sleep, lulled into a complacent, Rip Van Winkle-like slumber by the hum of South Africa's massive and erstwhile efficient grid pumping the megawatts throughout the region in a cheap and generous flow.

But nothing lasts forever, as the member countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) discovered two years ago, when the ability of South African utility Eskom to adequately supply the required energy buckled and the lights went out all over the region.

In the darkness, South Africa discovered that it needed, in double-quick time, to increase its energy output from a precarious 39,000MW to around 80,000MW. It also realised that it could not do it alone. That realisation was shared by its neighbours, the more canny of which wasted no time in blueprinting the rapid expansion of their energy industries, as much to keep the home fires burning as to profitably fuel South Africa's dire need. In an undertaking so formidable, obstacles abound. Most of the new energy, along with almost all existing capacity, will be coal-fired and leave messy carbon footprints of awesome dimension. In those areas where rivers run more or less reliably, environmental hazards and social displacement, both known and feared, will stand in the way of quick hydroelectric development.

New nuclear installation will not happen any time soon, as evidenced by South Africa's recent about-turn in cancelling an atomic-powered programme at the eleventh hour.

Technical breakthrough has brought down the cost and size of such renewable sources of power as the wind, sun and tides, but they still come nowhere near the cost-efficiencies and volumes of fossil-fired and atom-powered generation or the massive flows demanded.

The South African government and Eskom seem trepidacious of new power-generating projects outside its borders and such expansion is beset with obstacles. In the developing regional picture, energy sufficiency, or the lack of it, is causing more prickles than the South African government anticipated when it first grasped the nettle and confessed that it was entirely to blame for the current power paucity--because it neglected power-station building a dozen years ago.

Zimbabwe barters power for upgrades

Interesting, profitable and encouraging progress is being made in developing new energy generation region-wide. But the available power situation in most of the SADC member states is still precarious.

However, opportunistic and sometimes ingenious solutions are being found. Namibia and Botswana, for example, are taking advantage of the awakening of Zimbabwe's virtually dormant economy and have done deals to rehabilitate two moribund thermal installations, at Hwange and Bulawayo, in return for some of the power. The funding and much of the skills for the upgrades will come from Namibia's NamPower and Botswana's BPC (Botswana Power Corporation), with each taking 50% of the electricity generated in return. …