Monday, February 11, 2008

Generators, Eskom, and my wallet

Hubby is an engineering manager for Eskom and, as such, has access to information the rest of us don’t have. A few weeks back, based on some of that insider knowledge, he began to consider having a generator fitted to our house and wired into the DB board so that in the event of a power cut or failure, we could still have electricity.

We had a brief discussion over the weekend and, for a considerable variety of reasons, have decided against it, despite knowing that the load shedding may continue for as many as five or more years. Access to the funds to do so is not an issue…we have a comfortable income, investments that could be liquidated if necessary, excellent credit and a huge amount of equity in both our home and our rental property. Access to the cash to add a generator and have it professionally installed so that it would automatically start up and switch over at the drop of a KW is no problem for us.

The problem lies in our assessment of the situation. We have come to the conclusion that it is the wrong thing to do for a variety of reasons:

1) First of all, we decided that we can live without electricity for 2 to 3 hours per day. The notion that our lives will crumble and fall apart because we can’t watch Oprah or Noot vir Noot is just stupid. Yes, it will be inconvenient, but since when are we guaranteed convenience in our lives? I mean, how spoiled can I be that I resent having to light a couple of candles and read a book or play scrabble or cards with my husband?

To be honest, it just wasn’t that hard to arrange my maid’s work around the outages. Since, if we are going to have an outage, it usually occurs between noon and 2:30, I’ve restructured her work schedule so that, during that period of time, she is doing things that don’t require electricity, like sweeping, mopping, dusting, washing windows, changing beds, etc. She can vacuum and do the wash as soon as she gets here, and when the power returns at 2:30, she can do the ironing and any other chores requiring electricity.

Why can’t my own work be arranged that way? The blackouts are a good time to do tasks that don’t require electricity, whether it is cleaning out cupboards, clearing out the garage or wendy house, sorting and filing papers, or hauling stuff. Sitting down and thinking of ways to be productive without electricity for a paltry two hours a day may not exactly be easy, but who among us was promised that life would be easy?

My own father was raised in a household without electricity or running water or telephones…and he’s still alive and kicking (and fully electrified). All of our ancestors until about a hundred years or so ago, lived their entire lives without the stuff. How can we be such whingers over losing its benefits for a trifling two hours every couple of days?

2) Purchasing a generator is quite a financial commitment…I’d rather spend the money elsewhere. The cost/benefit just doesn’t move me to parting with thousands of rand: how much is a couple of hours of electricity a couple of times a week worth to me, anyway? Not that much!

3) One thing nobody has thought of is the pollution problem. If you run a diesel or petrol generator, you are going to create both noise and air pollution. Having that diesel generator clattering along at the back of your garage would be very much like having a large diesel truck sitting there, idling for a couple hours and pumping a mass of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. Imagine if all of your neighbours also had the equivalent of a diesel truck idling in their gardens all at the same time…

4) Then there is the matter of fuel. First, you have the logistics of keeping your generator fuelled: you’ve got to get fuel containers, then you have to fill them…which is not going to be cheap. Then you have to transport them safely. Then you have to have a safe place to store them…how close to your bedroom or lounge or children’s playroom do you want a fuel dump? And, of course, there is the matter of filling the beast and then going out again for more fuel.

Second, if we all decide to run out and buy generators for our homes…even if that many generators are available at prices we can pay…we will put huge pressure on fuel availability. And what happens when a commodity is in short supply? The cost increases.

Did someone say “biofuels”? Well, if we are dealing in futures here, eventually Eskom is going to get this sorted out and we won’t have the load shedding anymore. Biofuels come with their own set of problems, including lack of immediate availability. And, frankly, in a country where poverty-induced hunger is still a significant social issue, I have serious moral qualms about removing food sources from the reach of the poor just so I can surf the net while my neighbour’s house is dark. Only if I can be absolutely guaranteed that turning corn into fuel won’t make the price of corn rise or reduce the availability of cheap mielies for poor people, will I consider biofuels a viable solution. It is more important for poor people to eat than for middle class people to have light.

5) One of the things we are not considering is that this is a short term problem. Do I want to spend thousands of rand to purchase an alternative power source for my house when, in just a few years, it won’t be needed? Ok, if my power was down 4 hours every day, I might consider it, depending on what time of the day the outages were occurring. Or, if this is what electric service was going to be from this day forward…then it might make sense to have the alternative power. But two hours just a few times a month? Sound like a huge waste of money to me.

6) Which brings me to our final reason for rejecting the idea of installing a generator: cost effectiveness. It ain’t.

Diesel generators costs thousands of rand. Installing it so it will power at least a few of your mains plugs isn’t free, and setting it up to automatically switch over isn’t free either. Then you have to count the cost of fuel and maintenance of the generator (just like the engine of a diesel bakkie, it’s going to need maintenance from time to time). Add this all up and divide it by the number of hours you think you are going to need it this year. If you get hit with load shedding twice a week, that’s about 5 hours a week or 260 hours per year. Assuming you can do all your own electrical installation without frying yourself or your house wiring, what is it going to cost you?

Well, a generator big enough to supply a small household can run you R10 000, assuming you are not buying a name brand like Honda or Cummins. One that I investigated has a 12.5 litre fuel tank and will run about 12 hours on a tank of fuel. So, assuming best case scenario, i.e., no maintenance required on the generator, no increase in petrol/diesel prices, you average two outages a week and the power crisis is solved in 5 years, allowing you to retire the generator, how much is that 2.5 hours per day going to cost you via generator? Just under R22, or about R44 per week. Now, let’s assume the criteria remains constant, but the power crisis is resolved in 2 year: just over R50 per day, or R100 per week. If fuel prices rise, so will this operating cost. If the number of load shedding incidents drop to less than an average of two per week, the average operating cost will also rise. And, if you had to hire someone to do the installation, that cost will be higher still. Bottom line…are you prepared to fork out R400 a month for 20 hours of electricity? What do you think you will be doing with that electricity that it is worth R400 over and above your current expenses? Washing a load of clothes? Surfing the net? Watching TV?

For me, it seems a lot of cost and not a lot of benefit. The outages don’t happen that often, and when they do happen, they don’t last that long. I can live without a couple of hours of electricity…I could do it every day, if I had to, without much difficulty. Oh, I’d have to give some thought to things I could do by natural sunlight or candlelight, but I like to think and solve puzzles, so it’s no biggie.

When I consider that my father grew up in a house with no electricity, that he was able to finish high school (including homework), that he ate nutritious meals and didn’t suffer from food poisoning, even though they didn’t have refrigeration, it tells me that being deprived of my power two hours each day is a very tiny sacrifice for the benefit of my adopted homeland.

What can you do when your electricity goes out?

1 comment:

  1. Diesel generators cost thousands of rand. Having that Diesel generators clattering along at the back of your garage would be very much like a large diesel truck sitting there, idling for a couple hours and pumping a mass of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere.


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