Sick of load-shedding? How wheeling can save the South African electricity landscape

Just as South Africans start forgetting about the resources that go on behind the scenes when they switch on the lights, they’re reminded about how much they’re actually reliant on Eskom. But the return of load shedding spells something even more concerning than the inability to make supper or catch up on the latest series: how South African industry suffers when Eskom can’t keep up with demand.

Private companies have, however, not been complacent when it comes to their power procurement strategies. As electricity provision and stability becomes a significant business risk, they are seeking out alternative strategies to procure the power that they need. They are demanding more from the market – they want stable, cost effective power – and the market is adapting to meet their needs. This is where renewable energy wheeling comes in.

Wheeling is a financial transaction that allows power to be produced in one location and billed to an energy user in another region via the grid. This allows power to be generated for a private company in bulk amounts, without the generator needing to be geographically located at the site of use (“embedded generation” has been the chief way of providing back-up power until now, through diesel generators, solar PV systems and energy storage or batteries). This enables corporate users of electricity to procure power for their operations, and for the market to provide solutions for them based on their needs.

Wheeling can take place through a wheeling-use-of-system agreement with Eskom, based on the principle of non-discriminatory access, provided that compliance with Nersa and other regulatory requirements are met. This has been in place since 2009, but has rarely been used; the SOLA Group signed the first large-scale wheeling agreement for private buyer Amazon in late 2020. Technically, any form of electricity generation could provide private power through wheeling, but companies who pursue this type of power procurement, like Amazon, are more likely to choose the most cost-effective and sustainable option: renewable energy.

With South Africa’s abundant resources in both solar and wind energy, renewable energy options are proving to be more cost effective than other forms of energy generation – particularly when the generation plants are located in areas with abundant resources of wind and sun. In addition, these forms of energy generation are low-impact to the environment – meaning that they produce very little greenhouse gasses to manufacture and operate throughout their lifespans. This is particularly important for international companies such as Amazon and ABinBev, who have committed to aggressive carbon reduction targets for their operations.

As alternative power procurement grows, it will relieve Eskom’s capacity constraints by providing additional power to the grid. Eskom has reported its urgent need for an additional 4000 – 6000 MW of generation capacity to assist the utility with power provision, alongside its accelerated maintenance programme, in order to reduce load shedding risk.

This could be great news for the economy: load shedding purportedly cost South Africa’s economy around R75 billion in 2020, draining at least 2% to South Africa’s GDP loss during 2020, a year in which economic activity was actually subdued due to the pandemic.

There are legitimate concerns about the phasing out of coal, both from a technical and social perspective. The technical concerns are easily addressed through the provision of energy storage facilities and on-demand back-up power sources like green hydrogen; the social issues by keeping the Just Transition front and centre of the picture. Part of this is recognising the extreme business and social risks that a rapidly warming planet will bring, particularly in countries like South Africa.

As renewable energy wheeling becomes the go-to option for business consumers of electricity, the phase-out of coal will be more achievable. But renewable energy wheeling does not spell the end of Eskom – it just modernises the utility’s function. Wheeling requires a fee to be paid for every kWh wheeled through the grid. It is a great model for the utility, as they get paid to maintain the gridlines that provide South African businesses and citizens with the electricity that is central to their operations and livelihoods. 

Wheeling is the start of a modernised electricity picture, as it uses Eskom’s grid to connect private buyers and sellers together, in turn making more space for competition and choice for private buyers. A modernised grid could see private buyers and sellers of energy trading, whilst Eskom is paid to maintain its important grid infrastructure. This could provide more generation capacity, reduce South Africa’s carbon footprint, and ultimately spell the end of load shedding.

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