I am fortunate to live in Cape Town under the DA. I am happy with most things the DA does in this city but now it threatens to do something mad with my electricity supply. It wants to turn to the most expensive and unreliable sources of electricity there are, and so push up my electricity bills.

I now get my electricity through a pay meter in my kitchen. I am delighted with it. Paying for it online is easy and accurate. The progressive tariffs are fair and just: the more you use, the more you pay per unit (kilowatt-hour). I am on the lowest tariff and pay 240 cents/kWh, which seems reasonable.

Cape Town gets most of its electricity through Eskom but some from the city itself through its well-run 180 megawatt pumped storage scheme at Steenbras, near Elgin. It also gets a small amount from the Darling Wind Farm, an independent power producer (IPP), which has been running since 2008. Unfortunately it is very difficult to get production figures from this wind farm but best evidence suggests it has been a failure. Eskom has two big power stations near Cape Town: Koeberg Nuclear Power Station (1840 MW) and Palmiet Pumped Storage (400 MW), also near Elgin. Despite disgraceful incompetence recently, Koeberg has been well run and so has Palmiet.

Every now and then, the DA gets stupid ideas. It made a fool of itself over racial affirmative action appointments to its high offices. It mumbled about BEE rather than dismissing it outright. It was silly to think of having Mamphela Ramphele as its leader. It talks nonsense about climate change. And now it wants to embrace solar and wind for grid electricity.

For the umpteenth time, solar and wind are wonderful for off-grid applications but useless for grid electricity. They are worse than useless; their costs outweigh their benefits. We have seen this over and over again. Solar and wind are the most expensive sources of grid electricity, and have been a ruinous failure in every country that has tried them. This includes Denmark, Germany, the US, the UK and Australia. In every case, as more solar and wind is added to the grid, final electricity prices soar and electricity failures worsen. The fundamental reason for this lies with nature.

Electricity is only useful and only has value if it is reliable – if it comes on when you want it and stays on for as long as you want it. This is called dispatchable electricity. Wind and solar are not dispatchable and so are useless. (If you put only solar and wind onto the grid, the whole country would be in blackout in one minute.) In South Africa, wind has a load factor of less than 35% and solar less than 26%; this gives the power the plant produces compared with its capacity. Unreliability is worse than the low load factors. How much would you pay for brakes for your car that only worked 35% of the time, and you never knew when? I’d pay nothing. I’d pay to avoid them. To convert the unreliable, useless power coming off wind turbines and solar panels into reliable, useful power you have to incur huge system costs. These include storage, back-up generators, spinning reserve, compensation for lack of electrical inertia, generators running at below optimum efficiency to compensate for ramping up and down to match the fluctuations of wind and solar, and extra transmission. I estimate that the system costs for solar and wind are at least 200 cents/kWh. If a solar plant charges Eskom 40 cents/kWh, the true cost to Eskom is 240 cents/kWh. Eskom gets no compensation for these massive system costs.

The City of Cape Town has now gone out to tender for electricity supply from IPPs. I believe in a free market in electricity supply. I think any competent generators who pass technical regulation (correct frequency, voltage and synchronisation) should be allowed to sell as much electricity as they please to anyone they please. I welcome the idea of competition for power in Cape Town. However, there is no chance that any IPP will be able to compete against Eskom, even in the shambling mess it is in now. The City says that IPPs will “end load shedding and make electricity more affordable” and help it “to achieve its goal of reliable, affordable and clean energy for Capetonians”. Don’t make me laugh! Solar power, which seems the DA’s main interest, is unreliable, unaffordable and not very clean (it has a worse waste problem than nuclear with its deadly toxins that remain dangerous for thousands of millions of years).

Ironically, at the 4th South African Investment Conference last week, President Ramaphosa, speaking about our present electricity fiasco, used almost exactly the same words as the DA when he promised that the ANC was “moving with pace and determination to bring new generation capacity online in the shortest possible time.    We are doing so while undertaking the far-reaching reforms that will secure a reliable, affordable and sustainable supply of electricity …”  This is nonsense of course. The solar and wind projects that the ANC wants to force upon us will secure nothing but higher electricity prices for the consumers and even more blackouts. They will reduce our chances of ever having a successful industrial economy.

In Cape Town, the greatest demand for electricity is on winter weekdays at 19h00 in the evening. This is also the worst time for load-shedding. Could the DA please explain how a solar IPP can meet this demand after sunset during a rainy week? It would have to have back-up generators running on fossil fuels, or storage, which is staggeringly expensive. The best storage is pumped water storage, but this requires suitable sites, which seem to be exhausted around Cape Town, and massive capital expenditure. Batteries are useless for storing grid electricity; they are very expensive and can only store small amounts of electricity. Battery technology has made only slow advances in the last hundred years and shows little promise of doing better. After the electricity grid in Southern Australia crashed in July 2016 thanks to wind power, Elon Musk sold them the world’s biggest battery at a huge price. It proved useless for storing grid electricity, despite the small grid there.

If on the other hand, the solar IPP promises only to provide electricity in the middle of the day if the sun is shining, then it is worse than useless. However, in the DA’s tender document there is this interesting passage:

The maximum R/kWh rate the City will pay for electricity under the PPA will be limited to the equivalent of the prevailing Eskom Transmission local authority tariff applicable to the City at the time of award, including all kWh based levies.

Well now! If this means that the DA will only buy from an IPP that can at all times provide reliable electricity at lower than Eskom’s tariffs, that really would be something. I’d thoroughly approve that. But I don’t believe any IPP can. Eskom’s present average selling price is 111 cents/kWh. It sells it at about this price to municipalities, who mark it up to their customers. No IPP so far comes close to matching this price. The renewable energy IPPs charge double this for unreliable electricity. The only reliable (dispatchable) electricity from solar and wind comes from concentrated solar plants with storage (storing the heat of molten salts). The latest such plant in the Northern Cape, in about the world’s best solar conditions, charges over 500 cents/kWh at peak times.

If the City of Cape Town chose to buy unreliable solar power only during the middle of the day when the sun was shining, then Eskom would have to revise its tariffs. Otherwise Eskom would lose revenue when it was easy to supply power. So it would then make sense for Eskom to have a very low tariff (say 20 cents/kWh) in the middle of the day, a very high tariff at peak times and a high standing charge. The City could choose: stay with the present Eskom tariffs and don’t buy from IPPs, or do buy from IPPs and get a different tariff structure from Eskom. Choose. Or maybe the City would like to disconnect from Eskom altogether, in which case we’d go back to candles.

The ANC has crippled Eskom with corruption, incompetence and racial ideology. The country’s electricity supply is in a terrible mess and we face at least ten more years of load-shedding whatever happens. By far the best new electricity is nuclear, which is safe, clean, reliable and affordable, but it will take at least ten years for new nuclear to come on stream. Gas would be nice if we could get lots of it at a good price, which seems unlikely for a long time at least. Solar and wind are useless. Coal is dirty but does deliver affordable electricity if we could stop our coal stations from falling to pieces. The despised Turkish powerships are probably our best option for new power in the short term. There are no magic solutions.

The new DA Mayor of Cape Town, Geordin Hill-Lewis, has got off to a good start. His publicised display of taking up a broom and cleaning up the filthy streets of the poor areas is a very good political gesture. Compare it with the first gesture of new ANC mayors, which is to drive disdainfully past the poor in a shiny black Mercedes, with blue light flashing to show their contempt for them. But the proposal to save Cape Town from load-shedding by solar electricity is a ridiculous gesture – and a potentially damaging one.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal.