The South African government's plans for Eskom are crucial, not just for the country itself but for power consumers across Southern Africa because the company is the lynchpin of the Southern African Power Pool.
Pretoria's attitude towards Eskom over the years has been changeable. At times, the ANC government has appeared determined to defend the parastatal's dominant position in the industry as a national power company. At other times, it has been keen to create a more competitive sector that would require Eskom's position to be eroded.
President Cyril Ramaphosa told the South African parliament in February that electricity shortages due to load shedding that had taken place that week were "a hugely damaging reality check".
"There is no single solution to the problems at Eskom--neither restructuring, nor refinancing, nor cost cutting, nor tariff increases, nor better plant maintenance on their own will have the necessary effect. We need to pursue all of these measures and more, simultaneously," he said. (For more on the options for the reform of Eskom see p100.)
Eskom is by far the biggest player in African power provision at all levels with 45GW of generating capacity, but there are a growing number of independent power producers, particularly those with gas-fired capacity and in the renewables sector.
It looks to be a matter of when, rather than if, the country accelerates its move away from coal towards cleaner energy. Apart from the need to cut carbon emissions, coal-fired plants are responsible for dangerous levels of air pollution, particularly in Mpumalanga Province, where the majority of the country's coal plants are located.
A steady fall in the cost of construction, operation and maintenance for wind and solar power projects, coupled with rising efficiency levels, makes renewables increasingly attractive. Moreover, results from a survey published in March by UK think-tank E3G showed that 80% of South Africans want foreign investors in the country's power sector to focus on renewables rather than coal.
The main reasons given were the economic benefits, the role of renewables in tackling climate change, job creation, and lower air and water pollution. Eskom's long and entrenched position in the coal sector, aligned with its limited experience in developing renewables, may be another reason why the population hopes new investors target the renewables sector, say industry observers.
Renewable energy currently accounts...