Keeping the lights on

Rather unfortunately, it appears that we could well be having a winter of power blackouts here in South Africa – undoubtedly leading to a winter of discontent, in my household anyway.


As a result, state monopoly, Eskom, which was set up in 1923 and provides 95% of South Africa’s energy, has been pleading with customers to try and conserve electricity after announcing that supply will be “very tight” over the next few months, particularly during the evening peak usage time of 5-9pm.


It’s at that point that most people get in from work and so, rather inconveniently for us home bodies, cause a surge in demand by having the audacity to switch on their lights, heaters, cookers and other multifarious gadgets all at once.


Because of this selfish indulgence, everyone is now being asked to turn off their non-essential lights and appliances, which includes that all-important pool pump – a request that is likely to cause mini-riots in the suburbs, I’d have thought.


The ultimate aim though is to prevent the need for so-called “load shedding” or planned rolling blackouts across different areas of the country, based on a rotating schedule.


Last time that little tactic was employed in 2008 in a bid to ensure the stability of the national grid, it cost the South African economy a stonking R50 billion. And so you can see why Eskom would be keen to prevent a similar debacle.


But the crux of the problem at the moment is that, following a decade of government under-investment, the country’s energy production system is in desperate need of an overhaul, not least to cater to the requirements of the ever-burgeoning townships.


Almost two-thirds of Eskom’s power stations are more than midway through their expected operating lives, but the company has found it tricky to undertake higher levels of vital planned maintenance work while continuing to meet growing demand.


South Africa’s green agenda


The situation has now got to such a stage that the work can’t be put off any longer apparently and so the utility is rolling out a five-year maintenance plan to try and ensure that the lights stay on until two new power stations come on-stream in 2014 and 2017 respectively. Not good.


But all of these shenanigans got me to wondering about South Africa’s green agenda. Perhaps somewhat naively, you kind of think that, in a country as beautiful as this one, people might be really keen to preserve it, conserve it, protect it and nurture it.


Looking at things in terms of carbon emissions though, South Africa is the continent’s worst polluter, and being one of the heaviest coal users anywhere, is one of the top 20 carbon emitters in the world.


But, the government, does appear to be trying to clean up its act. By 2030, it’s requiring that 42% or so of all electricity generated in the country must come from renewable sources – a mix of wind, solar and hydro.


And US-based research body, the Pew Charitable Trusts, recently lauded South Africa for not only being a world leader in the green-energy race, but also for acting as a “cornerstone of clean energy development for the entire African continent”, after investing a huge $5.5 billion in 28 projects last year. Heady stuff.

But without meaning to put a great, big dampner on things, at street level things don’t look quite as glowing – although my observations are purely anecdotal and certainly aren’t based on any scientific fact.

For example, unlike in the UK, the green issue doesn’t appear to be particularly high up the middle class agenda in terms of conversation, or media coverage for that matter. And, despite the Mediterranean climate, I’ve yet to see a solar panel, or wind generator, attached to anyone’s house.


Moreover, although recycling is now a fairly well-established British habit, it appears that the lonely see-through plastic recycling bag that we put out faithfully every week will remain friendless for the foreseeable future.


Apparent indifference


In fact, when I’ve asked, people just pull a face, waft their hands around and pooh-pooh the matter, preferring to use their council-supplied offering as a freebie bin-bag instead.


To try and understand this apparent indifference, I asked our maid (in a non-accusatory fashion, I hasten to add) if she ever recycled anything. But her response, somewhat mystifyingly, was: “No. I live in a Coloured area.”

On enquiring (perhaps naively) as to why that should make any difference, she told me that the recycling people didn’t go there – only to more expensive areas such as the one in which we live. Which seems a bit bizarre to me.

Although there are recycling centres dotted around, as with everything in life, if it’s going to be a hassle, people don’t tend to bother. And so it is here too.

But there is a kind of underground recycling scene going on nonetheless. Early each Tuesday morning before the recycling and rubbish trucks arrive, a veritable army of entrepreneurial, black men emerge from the shadows, pushing shopping trolleys and scouring the waste for useful items such as bottles that can be sold on for a couple of Rand. Cardboard is another particular favourite.

A further thing that I’ve noticed, meanwhile, is the dearth of organic, and fairtrade, goods. Being a bit of a closet greenie, and a great believer in the power of the pound being able to make a difference in a world controlled by rampant corporate interests, I do like to spend my grocery money as judiciously as I can.

But it’s a tough ask over here. You’ll see the odd item in Woolworths, which is similar to Marks & Spencer and has close historical ties with it, as well as in the various incarnations of Spar, which is South Africa’s equivalent of Waitrose. But there’s no chance if you go to the more downmarket chains of Checkers or Pick ‘n Pay.

Another option though is to go to one of the food festivals or slow-food markets, of which there are many. But more on that later…..


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