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Joburg mulls sewage, solar to combat electricity crisis

While renewable energy is favoured, some of the most effective solutions seen by cities are more traditional ones.

Johannesburg is considering generating power from sources ranging from sewage to water pipes to help end electricity cuts that shutter shops and cause traffic gridlock.

The options, along with solar power and tripling output from a coal-fired plant on the eastern outskirts, are among those being explored as a national electricity shortage threatens to subject the city to cuts for years. Johannesburg, home to Africa’s biggest stock and bond exchanges and many of the continent’s largest companies, has a metropolitan population of about 8 million.

The situation is a “national issue” and must be approached in new ways, Sol Masolo, a spokesman for City Power, Johannesburg’s electricity distributor, said in an interview. “Now we have a clear focus on projects that we do to mitigate load-shedding,” or scheduled cuts, he said.

Because the South African government delayed a decision on whether to allow national power company Eskom to build new plants more than a decade ago, electricity is now rationed to businesses and city dwellers with areas often blacked out for four hours. Lynne Brown, the minister responsible for Eskom, has said the country can expect the situation to persist for another three years as generating plants are built.

City cost

The cuts shut businesses, leave residences without lighting and disrupt transport as traffic lights are taken offline. That has a cost.

Eskom, which is based in Johannesburg, curbs power in four stages, according to the severity of the shortage on a given day. Stage 1 cuts 1 000 megawatts nationally, stage 2 reduces supply by 2 000 megawatts and stage 3 by as much as 3 000 megawatts. Stage 4 is the reduction of 4 000 megawatts.

A full month of stage 1 costs businesses nationally about R6 billion ($509 million) a month, Mike Schussler, chief economist at Johannesburg-based research group Economists.co.za., said in a May 20 interview. Eskom has reached stage 3 on three days this year and regularly announces stage 2 cuts. It increased rolling blackouts Friday to stage 2, expected to last from noon to 10 pm.

‘Zoo poo’

Johannesburg Mayor Parks Tau this month announced plans to use in-pipe turbines to create energy from the citywide water system, similar to a system used in Portland, Oregon, and to convert sewage to gas by using bio-digesters. The city zoo has a system that uses anaerobic bacteria to convert “zoo poo” into gas.

City Power has over two years installed about 30 000 “smart meters,” which warn customers to reduce consumption before potential blackouts and can limit the power they use. Consumers can then prioritize what to unplug to help curb the cuts implemented by Eskom. It plans to double the number, Masolo said. Already that has allowed the city to reduce the scope of some outages.

City Power also has a control system that allows it to switch off water heaters in certain areas of Johannesburg and is looking to curb the installation of new units, Masolo said.

“By installing solar water heaters, you’re basically killing demand for the regular ones,” he said.

While renewable energy is favoured, some of the most effective solutions seen by cities are more traditional ones.

The coal-fired Kelvin power plant, owned by two Johannesburg-based banks — Nedbank and Investec — is currently supplying about 200 megawatts to City Power, or about 7% of the metropole’s needs.

“We are engaging with the private sector to secure investment in Kelvin to push its capacity to at least 600 megawatts,” Tau said in a May 6 address.

Tshwane, the municipality that includes South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, has similar plans to revive two coal-fired plants and plans a 40 megawatt solar power facility.

©2015 Bloomberg News

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