Kelvin Kemm

Here in the “upside down” Southern Hemisphere, we have now passed mid-winter and are heading toward summer. However, the nights will remain rather cold for another month, before we start to really feel the returning warmth of summer.

This time of year puts real pressure on South Africa’s electricity supply system. Many thousands of people dive into hot baths and turn on their household heaters all at about the same time each evening. As the sun sets and families prepare dinners and relax or do homework, lights, radios, televisions and computers are turned on, and stoves and other kitchen equipment are powered up, thanks to electricity.

Even opening refrigerator doors causes motors to switch on, to remove the bit of heat that migrated into the fridge and keep temperatures constant. Opening oven doors drops cooking temperatures and flicks heating elements back on.

The great electrical lines that march across the country hum as they transmit power across the vast distances, and we South Africans do this electrical transmission dance in a rather spectacular fashion.

South Africa is blessed with abundant coal, so we burn the carbon rock to produce most of our electricity. One snag is that the coal is essentially all clustered in the northeastern part of the country. That means we must move the electricity over long distances.

It’s expensive to build all those power lines and, even though they are world-leading technology, such long-distance transmission also results in a significant loss of power. As electricity is transported hundreds of miles, some simply disappears into the atmosphere, in accordance with laws of physics.

The South African distribution grid works rather well. But it is a major investment in complex technology that cannot easily be replicated in all terrains all over the country – or in many other African nations.

There are more than fifty such nations, covering an area larger than China, the United States and Europe combined. That is a lot of ground to cover.

Making the challenge even greater, many African countries and communities are only 5% electrified. In other words, 95% of their families, schools and businesses have no electricity, or have it only a few hours a day or week, and then often erratically and unpredictably.

Kelvin Kemm

Dr. Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist who runs his own business strategy consultancy, Stratek, based in Pretoria, South Africa. For many years he has also been involved in improving public understanding of technology issues. He regularly writes articles, gives public presentations and appears on radio and television, presenting science topics to lay audiences in an inspirational manner. He is active in energy policy matters and believes Africa must chart its own future, independent of developed country perceptions and pressures. Dr. Kemm has been awarded a Lifetime Achievers Award by the South African National Science and Technology Forum.