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TOBY SHAPSHAK: Solar is the way, if state would listen

Article originally published by Business Live on 9 Jan 2019

TOBY SHAPSHAK: Solar is the way, if state would listen

SA must embrace new power technologies, not only to save us from Eskom’s rolling blackouts but to prepare us for the future

The first column of the year is traditionally a prediction of events and trends to expect in the next 12 months. I’ll give it to you in a sentence: this year the big tech trends will be the ever-growing usefulness of the mobile ecosystem, the advent of faster network speeds (especially 5G for mobile), the continued growth of artificial intelligence, the ongoing connection of things to the internet (most sensors that measure them), the rise of electric vehicles and autonomous driving cars, and, hopefully, cheaper internet in Africa.

But the technology that all South Africans are likely to learn about, embrace and, hopefully, install in their homes (and businesses) is solar power generation, which is more prosaic but infinitely necessary.

In case anyone needed reminding, by the fourth day of the year Eskom was already in load-shedding mode.

The biggest threat to business, and personal sanity, this year is going to be power supply and how to resolve this. If anything, we’ve learnt over the past few years that Eskom simply can’t be taken at its word about the state of its own generating capacity.

And it’s making a fool of anyone who tries to reassure us otherwise. President Cyril Ramaphosa promised us that there would be no load-shedding before January 13.

As one wit on Twitter correctly interpreted it: “#Loadshedding is the debit order you forgot about.”

The only way out of this mess, let’s be rational and honest, is to stop relying on Eskom — at the very least, as the primary source of our power.

The country’s leaders are stuck in the coal-powered past — and terrified of upsetting the unions
Africa has an average of 300 days of sunshine a year. Former president Jacob Zuma was partly right about us needing nuclear power to supplement SA’s energy mix, but as usual he got it wrong in the end.

The nuclear reactor is in the sky, beaming sunshine down on us every day. We just need the photovoltaic panels and batteries to capture it and reuse it.

And yet, the coal-fired electricity grid costs Africa an estimated $21bn a year. What a waste.

I predict that this is the year that home-sized solar installations will take off in SA. Though it should be encouraged by the government, and tax incentives should be offered, don’t expect it to happen.

Mineral & energy resources minister Gwede Mantashe could increase the solar power supplied to the grid by signing agreements for independent producers to do so. But the former mine union boss is as stuck in our coal-powered past as the rest of the government and is terrified of upsetting the unions. A few tens of thousands of militant unionists are effectively holding 58-million South Africans to ransom by refusing to accept that energy production will eventually move to renewable sources.

As I told an overseas-based friend on Saturday night, the roar of generators in my neighbourhood is the real sound of Ramaphosa’s “new dawn”.

• Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff magazine (