Challenges within the electricity distribution sector are hampering the growth and progress of South Africa’s electricity sector, Engineering Council of South Africa council member Dr Philip Lloyd tells Engineering News.
Lloyd, a professor at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s Energy Institute, says it is important to realise that State-owned power utility Eskom is responsible for only a small portion of the country’s power delivery and that the biggest problem lies at municipal level, where most local power distribution takes place.
He say distribution challenges at this level are “mainly due to the lack of funding for upgrades and maintenance that municipalities are facing and the fact that they are severely understaffed”.
“This results in municipalities overcharging for electricity to make up for funding shortages in order to enable the provision of social services,” Lloyd says.
Further, he notes the lack of skilled personnel exacerbates the problems being experienced.
Quoting statistics compiled by the Association of Municipal Electricity Undertakings, Lloyd says an estimated 30% of all municipalities do not have an engineer on their staff to run and maintain power distribution departments.
“It is clear that maintaining the electricity power system has been neglected; we are now experiencing the effects of this,” he adds.
Deputy Energy Minister Barbara Thompson, speaking at the 2011 Energy Indaba, in Sandton, in March, stated urgent action was needed to restructure South Africa’s electricity distribution industry, with infrastructure and maintenance backlogs recently hitting R30-billion and growing at a rate of R2,5 billion a year.
Lloyd believes that power distribution challenges can be tackled by deploying more skilled people at municipal distribution sites and by improving management.
“Maintenance must become a priority at management level within municipalities,” he says.
Lloyd asserts that Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande’s recommended restructuring of the Services Sector Education and Training Authority (Seta) landscape could further fuel the skills deficit in South Africa’s power sector.
The proposed restructuring entails the recertification of 15 Setas with minor changes; the amalgamation of several Setas to secure greater efficiency, which will result in the establishment of six new Setas; and an overall reduction in their number from 23 to 21.
“The Minister’s proposed alter- ations to the Setas cannot be welcomed by the engineering profession, because we feel that it further reduces industry involvement,” he says.
Further, Lloyd believes that, despite Eskom putting in a lot of time, effort and money to improve internal skills development, historical shortages of skills in some departments have not been eradicated.
“There are skills shortages in certain areas that have been there for many years – for example, in the distribution and safety departments,” he adds.
The explosion of a turbine at the Duvha power station, in January this year, is an example of a disaster that could have been prevented had there been adequately trained staff on site, he states.
Lloyd believes South Africa suffers from what he refers to as “analysis paralysis” because too much time is being spent on conducting initial research and analysis in resolving problems, which results in project lead times being extended to an unproductive extent.
“We need to take action and overcome the skills shortage and infrastructure constraints within the local power generation and distribution sectors. This is central to local economic growth and job creation,” he concludes.
Lloyd says the general opinion among the engineering fraternity is that the electricity tariff hikes, approved by the National Energy Regulator of South Africa, are long overdue.
“For a long time, we have enjoyed some of the cheapest electricity tariffs in the world. Now we are moving towards international levels, which is necessary to ensure efficient energy supply. Without proper funding, services cannot be delivered,” he adds.