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Another downgrade for Eskom. What can they learn from the Marlboro Man?

Eskom is in big trouble.

In fact, if they were a listed company, they would be in existential trouble.

Now, before you conclude this is an article about corruption and cover-ups and the latest Moody’s downgrade, it isn’t. Even a squeaky clean energy parastatal, with proper procedures, robust governance and clear funding options, would have had difficulty avoiding the sort of trouble they are in.

The threat Eskom now faces comes from something it cannot control. It comes from the exponential rate of technological development, that has been happening overseas for at least the last decade.

The simple fact is that solar and wind are now cheaper than both coal and nuclear, particularly in climates such as South Africa.

Just how cheap is solar?

I meet with Ramez Naam, the co-chair of Singularity University’s Energy Department, in Los Angeles earlier this year and discussed the exponential decline in the price of renewable energy.

He explained that in 2017, India had received solar bids at $0.038 per kilowatt hour (Kwh) which is 4x cheaper than the equivalent bids from 2013.

He highlighted that in Mexico, they had received bids at $0.027/KWh.

And finally, he talked about Dubai, which at the time of writing had received the cheapest bid of $0.024/KWh, without any subsidies.

“This is the cheapest unsubsidisied contract for electricity every signed on planet earth using any technology. And this is not an end point as this price is going to continue dropping”

How does this compare to Eskom’s pricing?

Well, on March 27th, 2018, The Citizen newspaper reported the following: –

Eskom shocks with 30% price hike request

They go on to report that municipalities are currently charged, excluding vat, Zar 0.8913/KWh and will have to pay ZAR0.9379/KWh from 01st April.

That’s $0.08/KWh or 3.3x more expensive than the cost of Dubai’s new solar farm.

Not only that but by the time the electricity reaches the consumer, the price has been inflated to 1.3635/KWh or $0.12/KWh which is 5x more!

What this ultimately all means is that Eskom’s problems will increase over the next 10 years. Here’s why.

Virtuous Circles

Just take a moment to study the picture.

It’s showing how there are multiple virtuous activities occurring simultaneously to drive down the price of renewables whilst increasing the cost of fossil fuels.

Simplifying, more suppliers, means prices come down (Swanson’s Law), which increases demand, requiring more supply, meaning more suppliers, meaning prices come down and so on.

The reverse is true for fossil fuels as both actual and future expected demand falls, meaning fewer participants, less innovation which reverses Swanson’s Law, meaning prices at best remain static but ultimately start to increase.

Peabody Energy, the largest and most storied U.S. coal company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2016

The impact for Eskom is significant as approximately 80% of their energy production is currently from coal-fired stations.

So when will the mass migration to renewables start?

This is the question I posed to James Hilburn, co-founder and managing partner of the South African solar company, Econavitas.

“Using every measure possible, the tipping point has already occurred, and we are seeing double-digit increases in demand from business and retail customers who want to utilise solar. If you are considering a solar installation for your home, you should expect a 3.5 to 4 year payback period, which also covers any financing costs.”

This essentially means that your upfront expenses are covered within four years by the reduction in payments to Eskom.

“For customers that decide they want to go fully of the grid, the payback period is typically eight years, as they have the additional cost of battery storage to consider, but these prices are coming down rapidly. We are incredibly excited about the opportunities Tesla’s Powerwall 2 battery will bring which we expect to start importing later this year.”

Although initially the demand for solar will be limited to companies and higher income earners, these are the two most important customer segments for Eskom as they make up a disproportionate amount of their total income.

There are also additional factors that will increase the level of demand for off-grid solutions exponentially.

For example, financing will become more accessible and cheaper as lenders understand the accretive value of solar to home valuations.

In California, studies have shown that solar installations add approximately $6,000 to values for every KWh added.

As soon as the first South African lenders start to finance installations at prime +2% rather than prime +10% or more, we should expect the floodgates to open.

This will also start to open up bundled installations agreements such as used by Solar City, where consumers can buy their panels with no upfront costs.

When Tesla roof tiles start to arrive in South Africa, more barriers will be removed as they offer ‘infinite tile warranties’.

Social drivers will also increase demand from the corporate sector. Boards and executive teams will only push harder for solar and wind solutions not only because of economics, but they now have to show their commitment to environmental sustainability.

Increased supply with continued reduction in installation costs, improved access to financing and a range of emotive drivers will increase demand exponentially over the next few years.

And then who will Eskom invoice?

Eskom’s troubles are therefore only just starting. Not only do they face the real risk of sharp declines in energy demand and therefore revenue. They also still have to find solutions to manage their existing operations and infrastructure.

Falling demand will not mean they are able to reduce costs in a lock-step fashion.

You cannot simply switch off a power station when demand drops. The majority of their agreements are long-term contracts, whether that relates to investment, maintenance, suppliers or financing and hedging arrangements.

I wonder what will happen when we reach a point where coal demand is reduced so significantly that plants ideally should be closed, but cannot be because of contractual issues?

They are very much stuck between a rock and hard place. Raising prices will simply speed up our move to alternatives. Yet if they don’t raise revenue levels, the latest Moody’s downgrade will not be their last.

So, is their situation helpless?

Maybe, but perhaps they could take a lesson out of Philip Morris International.

Perhaps they could pivot…

The Philip Morris Pivot

Philip Morris International, the owners of the iconic Marlboro brand, found themselves in a similar situation to Eskom a few years back.

They were both seeing and projecting a significant reduction in demand for their product, the cigarette.