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Energy woes loom over Southern Africa

Eskom, South Africa's state-owned energy utility, and the largest power supplier in Africa, is battling to meet local and regional demand for energy. South Africa has just recorded its 100th consecutive day of rolling blackouts, also known as load shedding. Load shedding is needed to protect the nation’s grid from collapse when Eskom’s mostly coal-fed plants can’t meet demand, which happened on 205 days in 2022. Currently, the country is cycling between Stage 3 and Stage 4 load shedding, equivalent to being without power for between 4.5 and 6 hours per day.

The issue has been escalated to a national crisis status. It also affects the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP), and those smaller regional economies who are reliant on power from the SAPP, including Namibia and Botswana, who import up to 70% and 37% of their energy requirements from the SAPP respectively.

This creates measurable stress on the economy, whereby South Africa's Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy reported that load shedding was costing the country’s economy R1 billion (EUR 54 million) a day.

Eskom's outgoing CEO has reiterated the importance of diversification of its energy mix and the important role of independent power producers going forward. Coal still accounts for 80% of the energy mix in South Africa.

While the South African Minister of Finance ambitiously claimed that load shedding would "be a thing of the past" in 12-18 months, during the recent World Economic Forum, the reality paints a different picture. Eskom is in dire financial straits, reporting a loss of R 12.3 billion (EUR 665 million) over their latest financial year, despite implementing steep increases in electricity tariffs.

Way forward

South Africa’s National Energy Crisis Committee has proposed several measures to ease the crisis in the short term, including importing energy from neighboring countries and buying excess energy from independent power producers. However, several of South Africa’s neighbors, including Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana, either don’t have excess electricity or are dealing with load shedding problems of their own.

Emergency legislation is also being developed to allow the faster approval and development of new power plants.

How does SteamBio Africa play a role?

The SteamBio Africa project provide new green alternatives to coal for either new and/or existing coal projects within the region. The availability of new, sustainable and cost effective biofuels can unlock new investment opportunities for renewable thermal powerplants, as the appetite for new coal projects is waning. The importance of dispatchable power plants cannot be emphasized enough, as intermittent renewables such as solar and wind will not resolve the issue, as they cannot cater for the baseload or energy demand peaks. There may be added synergies possible in developing SteamBio technology in conjunction with power plants, as the residual heat generated from the power plant could help drive the SteamBio process, all while the SteamBio process ensures that the power plant is fed with a more consistent and higher energy feedstock.

The resulting biofuel is ultimately designed to be a drop in alternative for existing coal use, allowing existing coal users to blend or replace coal entirely within their existing boilers. This may help attract new green investment into existing projects and could allow for additional income streams through the generation of carbon offsets. The combination of renewed investment interest as well as new revenue streams may help breathe life into older but still operational infrastructure, critical for buying bridging the gap until new generation projects can be operationalized.

Photo: an aerial view of Cheetah Conservation Fund's Biomass Technology Demonstration Site, hosting the SteamBio Africa project which is currently being installed and commissioned. An array of solar panels along with battery storage will ensure that the demonstration site is powered for continuous operation.


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