Energy Efficiency, Rediscovered

Elisabeth Jeffries
Cursing is not uncommon at the World Cup, the quadrennial global football championship. The event routinely provokes malediction for many reasons-ties, losses, inept play, called fouls, uncalled fouls, official favoritism (or disfavoritism), player injuries, national animosities, and so on. The next tournament will be no different in that respect. Due to begin in June 2010 and hosted this time by South Africa, it will be scattered across 10 stadiums crammed with tens of thousands of screaming fans. But millions more around the globe will watch the games on television, and they may well have a new reason to curse: blackouts.

The Cup will occur at a delicate time for South Africa's energy moguls. Eskom, the national utility, has warned that power cuts, which have plunged thousands of households into darkness on many occasions over the last three years and cost businesses millions, could continue right through to 2010. There is a real possibility that these shortages will disrupt the matches and broadcasts during high-demand periods. "Eskom's power system will remain tight over the next five years with an increased likelihood of power interruptions. This trend is set to continue at least until the first new coal-fired base load power station is commissioned in 2011," the utility reported last year.

Eskom's customers are getting used to it. At times, they have been forced, reluctantly, to adopt an energy-saving mindset, turning off electric equipment at the wall, avoiding use of washing machines during peak hours, and baking less. But the utility is still in a difficult position. South Africa's total demand for energy is increasing faster every year than its supply, and is projected to double within the next 10 years. New capacity investment is expensive. So, under pressure from the government, Eskom has had to open itself to energy-saving initiatives and renewable energy measures such as solar water heating. "Eskom had in the past refused to admit any link between solar water heating and the blackouts, but has now finally acknowledged it," says consultant Glynn Morris of the South African energy consulting group Agama Energy. Probably one of the first utilities in the world turning to renewable energy as a result of supply problems rather than government-mandated targets, Eskom in 2007 pledged US$200 million over the next five years in support of a solar water heating roll-out as part of its energy-saving initiatives, which help finance new equipment for customers.