Renewable energy programmes aim to bring power to SA’s most remote locations. File picture: CIRCA
Renewable energy programmes aim to bring power to SA’s most remote locations. File picture: CIRCA

CRISIS? What crisis? As the economy strains under a power shortage and a sense of crisis prevails, Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson is in no rush to act on SA’s energy shortfall.

Four major initiatives, all of which would hasten the arrival of new generating capacity, sit blocked in her office. None of the initiatives can move ahead without ministerial approval. Top of mind is the announcement of the fourth window-round winning bids by independent power producers of renewable energy.

Renewable energy is by far the quickest way to bring new capacity into the grid, says Harald Winkler, director of the University Cape Town’s Energy Research Centre, and the delay makes no sense in the context of the crisis.

The Independent Power Producers (IPP) office submitted the winning bids to Ms Joemat-Pettersson in November last year. But instead of signing off by the deadline of November 24, the paperwork remains with her.

A second deadline of March 31 given as a commitment to the government’s energy war room, has also passed without explanation.

Another important initiative stuck in her office for months, is SA’s master plan for gas.

Gas is also viewed as a relatively quick solution to the power shortfall. After their lekgotla sessions in January, the ANC and the Cabinet underlined the importance of gas and signalled that it was a priority.

But the Gas Utilisation Master Plan — a draft of which was produced under conditions of great urgency last year — is yet to see the light of day.

A handful of people reported having sight of the completed draft as far back as September last year, but Ms Joemat-Pettersson has given no indication of when she intends to publish it.

As with renewable energy, the urgency of commissioning gas power has implications for national interest.

Prof Winkler says: "Renewable energy and gas are the two fuel sources, and associated technologies, that can deliver power relatively quickly. In the case of gas, there simply hasn’t been a transparent process around what the government is thinking.

"While introducing gas involves dealing with complicated policy questions, that is not a reason not to publish the draft policy," he said.

Long-term energy planning processes have also been put on hold since Ms Joemat-Pettersson came into office last May.

The Integrated Energy Plan (IEP), which is a master plan for energy in general, and the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), a more specific plan on electricity, have been stalled.

The last version of the IRP, which was published in December 2013, seems to have been unofficially scrapped. All official communication from the Department of Energy, particularly that concerning the commissioning of nuclear power, refers only to the 2010 version, which supports nuclear power more explicitly, but is five years out of date.

The IRP, featuring the energy mix, is a critical framework for the public and private sectors, without which neither can plan to build new energy capacity.

The failure of Ms Joemat-Pettersson to publish updated long-term plans, or submit them to the Cabinet, will have a dire effect on energy security and on the market’s attractiveness to investors.

"Unless long-term planning is regularly updated, there is no framework with (which) to deal with the short term, and we will lurch from crisis to crisis," says Prof Winkler.

Frost and Sullivan analyst Johan Muller says because so much in the energy landscape has changed since 2010, the policy update is of even greater importance than usual.

"The imploding of Eskom, discovery of gas resources in Mozambique, the rapid uptake of renewable energy projects and moves towards a state of cost-reflective tariffs, make it evident that the IRP should keep up with developments. The impact on industry is of policy uncertainty.

"If SA had a more robust and certain policy, it would stand to attract more investment at an increased rate," says Mr Muller.

The unexplained delay of fourth-round renewable bid winners could see investors losing patience with SA and looking to other emerging markets, Mr Muller says.

In the case of gas, the sense is that "government officials are uncertain of the gas future, due to its complexity" and "gas investors will be tempted to look at alternatives, like Mozambique, where some momentum has been built on the gas landscape".

So while plans and investment are stalled, what accounts for Ms Joemat-Pettersson’s dragging her feet in the face of a crisis?

Politically, there has been no ambiguity over the urgency of the crisis from the government and the African National Congress (ANC).

The ANC lekgotla spelt out the priorities and directed the government to act to bring new capacity on line in the next 24 to 36 months.

The war room has told Ms Joemat-Pettersson the same.

The proposed nuclear programme, for which she has repeatedly shown enthusiasm, may be a part of it.

It is almost certainly behind the reluctance to update the IRP, says Prof Winkler, as the 2010 version is decisive on nuclear procurement while the 2013 version puts in place barriers to the price and the timeframe by which nuclear power might be needed.

SA’s nuclear future might also be clouding the future of gas, says Mr Muller. It is difficult to have clarity on gas policy without clarity on the nuclear situation as there is doubt whether SA will need both new feedstocks.

Though Ms Joemat-Pettersson and President Jacob Zuma have made it clear that the nuclear programme enjoys political support from the highest political office in the land, the programme remains unfinanced — and there is no indication from the Treasury if it will be feasible.

Some industry players say Ms Joemat-Pettersson is dissatisfied with the renewables programme and has questions about the credentials of successful bidders — from the extent of their local ownership to the number of jobs they are creating.

Some bidders have been closely questioned on their projects, by the department and local and provincial ANC representatives.

Energy crisis or not, Ms Joemat-Pettersson is showing that, by sitting on the fourth round bids, she wants her leverage over it to grow too.