Gwede Mantashe is going to be pissed. Someone at Eskom has found out about batteries. Big ones. It gets worse for the non-practising energy minister: they have bought a few – about 500 megawatts in total.
Even worse, Eskom has given it an acronym. Bess – for battery energy storage system. That means it’s serious. An acronym means that it’s talked about enough to need one. The Bess project is a potential game changer for South Africa’s energy supply, as any who look to the future, instead of the past, for a way out of rolling blackouts.
“This is the first part of the 500MW Bess initiative announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa as part of government’s measures to address South Africa’s long-running energy crisis,” Eskom said proudly last month.
“The Eskom Bess project will act as a proof of concept on the delivery of the first battery energy storage project in South Africa. The project supports transformational aspects by demonstrating large-scale deployment in support of South Africa’s renewable energy strategy and addresses local overall system challenges.”
Unlike the last century’s solution of pumping water uphill when there is spare power – and then letting it run back down to generate extra power when it’s needed – now, any extra juice will be stored in batteries. Then it can be used when needed, and not wasted on an outdated, energy-inefficient hydroelectric hack.
Mantashe is going to be furious. There is he trying to convince the country that the way out of, well, darkness is through unnecessarily expensive gas-powerships and trying to embrace big fat contracts with potentially lucrative kick-backs for an upcoming election.
As I have long argued, batteries are the missing ingredient in South Africa’s future energy mix. The only person who seems oblivious to it is the most important person responsible for energy, even if he can’t read his own title. Then again, this Bosasa corruption-sullied minister, and ANC chair, is only in cabinet to prevent KwaZulu-Natal ANC cadres embarrassing his boss by singing in praise of #PresidunceJacobZuma at the ruling party’s conferences. Anyone who can point to any other reason, please let me know.
Batteries power everything in our technologically-enabled world, from smartphones to electric vehicles. Elon Musk’s Powerwalls are designed for houses, while his much larger enterprise-scale power banks are being used for cities and countries.
Over on Planet Ebrahim Patel – where the trade, industry and competition minister lives, seemingly in the same alternative universe as Planet Gwede Mantashe – there has thankfully been a flash of, well, reality. Instead of requiring 100% of the solar panels and to be manufactured in South Africa, it is now down to 35%.
There’s only one little problem. There isn’t a solar panel manufacturing industry in the country.
There are only two “assembly plants, they are not even only manufacturing plants, because they are importing the wafers from China and assembling them in the country,” Professor Samson Mpaueli, a director for the Centre for Renewable Energy Studies at Stellenbosch University, told 702 after Patel’s announcement on Monday 1 August.
Despite this patent’s lack of actual capacity, Patel wants the country to wait for such an industry to be built – a years-long process that requires both investment and electricity, neither of which is in abundant supply. It also betrays how out of touch Patel is with the lived reality of South Africa’s citizens. He wants to hold the renewables revolution hostage for the many years it will take to build such an industry, while also expecting those citizens to bear the brunt of the unnecessary surcharge for importing and assembling something that could be bought cheaper and ready to go directly from the manufacturer. What are the ANC’s priorities? Using the available technology to its best effect to solve the #loadshitting, or trying to create another patronage network?
As Professor Mpaueli pointed out, without a proper timeframe for Patel’s grandiose plans, we risk “a dumping of technologies”. Done properly, however, there is the potential “to see a lot more growth in renewable technology uptake”.
Might a make a humble suggestion to the two misguided ministers, instead of focusing on manufacturing, can they not use the marvellous intellectual and scientific “local content” to inform their decisions, please? Logical content is always going to trump trade barriers and save us from the rolling blackouts.
*This column first appeared in the Daily Maverick