Chris Yelland: ‘We don’t have an energy crisis, we have a...


Chris Yelland: ‘We don’t have an energy crisis, we have a government crisis’

The electrical engineer is one of the country's leading energy experts and is quoted by everyone, but who is he? Chris Yelland believes South Africa has everything it needs to overcome the power crisis. But we have too many do-littles and naysayers, and far too many ministers and committees, he told ILSE SALZWEDEL.


LISTENING to Chris Yelland talk about his childhood, it's easy to believe he was destined to become an electrical engineer. After all, his father and uncle were electrical engineers and his grandfather started an engineering firm.

But he wasn't pushed in a specific direction, Chris tells me during our Saturday afternoon conversation. “My father simply stimulated my interest in science," he says, recalling childhood gifts such as a chemistry set and the fact that his father subscribed to Life magazine from the US. “I devoured it!"

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

However, the gift that probably sparked a lifelong interest in electrical engineering was the crystal radio set he and his father built together. Sitting on his bed in Durban and listening to LM Radio's hit parade was “like magic."

Only once, at the end of his first year as an engineering student at the University of Natal, did he consider becoming a doctor instead. Although he was accepted by the medical school at the University of Cape Town, electrical engineering won, and with degree in hand, Chris went to Britain for two years in 1977 and qualified as a chartered engineer (the rough equivalent of South Africa's professional engineer).

Back in Durban he joined Yelland Engineering, initially as a junior engineer but eventually as a technical and later marketing manager. His CV shows he was a co-winner of the Telemecanique Electrical Design Award.

After the family business was sold, Chris increasingly focused on media engagement and writing for the energy sector. Among his clients in the 1990s were major international players in the South African energy industry such as Rotek and ABB. But, he quickly reminds you, that was in the days when Eskom was still an internationally renowned power supplier and two decades before ABB personnel were involved in state capture.

‘Early adopters’

During this time, Chris also started a niche magazine, Energize. His father, Herbert John, was the editor of Electron, and that's how EE Publishers was born in 1998. “We were early adopters of the possibilities presented by technology and the digital landscape," he says.

His technical writing has been rewarded with various industry prizes and he has published a few books, including The Test of Leadership: 50 Years in the Electricity Supply Industry of South Africa by Dr Ian McRae, former head of Eskom, in 2006.

By November 2019, the media landscape had changed significantly and advertising revenues had shrunk dramatically. Chris, then 65, decided it was a good time to sell his publications and retire. Then the Covid pandemic broke out. “It's probably the only time in my life that my timing was right," he jokes.

Four years later, Chris is anything but a typical retiree. Besides his work as an energy adviser (including for Outa), he is a consultant for the Intellidex research group and a popular media analyst on energy matters. And then there's Chris the activist. He enjoys speaking and writing about issues he believes should be on the national agenda, such as green power. “Green hydrogen power and its byproducts will play a significant role worldwide in the next few decades, and I think it's important for South Africa to develop a national strategy on this." Long before renewable energy such as solar power was on everyone's lips, Chris had already written and spoken about it.

He doesn't believe in dwelling on Eskom's glorious past or the government's mistakes, although he speaks frankly about them. But sitting around and complaining won't get the lights back on. He looks forward instead and tries to use his years of experience and knowledge in the electricity sector to help find urgent solutions. Recently, he was involved as a consultant in the establishment of the Energy Council of South Africa, and last year he developed his own plan to overcome the power crisis. He is modest about the fact that parts of it were incorporated into the national crisis action plan unveiled in July 2022. “My plan was well received by Eskom and supported by the national planning committee, yes, but I played only a small role."

Key lies in collaboration

He believes the key to solving our country's problems lies in collaboration. “It starts with ordinary people who want to make a difference, and who then share and present their ideas. I am just one person — I don't have a large team behind me but I can come up with something and put it on the agenda so that other people can support it or adapt and change it to take it further."

The activist in him believes ideas can ultimately make a big difference. But he is the first to admit that this part of his personality only emerged later in his career. “In those first 20 years I was an electrical engineer focused on making designs work and getting projects off the ground. I had a fairly underdeveloped sense of social responsibility and didn't really think about or get involved in socio-economic, political or policy issues."

It was as an editor that things began to change, “because in that world you work with so many ideas and you realise that electricity and energy are about so much more than just technical issues. Actually, they are driven by social, political, economic and policy aspects. And ultimately, they affect things like society and the environment."

When he realised this, he became passionate about making the energy industry accessible and understandable. The fact that South Africa had experienced load-shedding for the first time also played a role in what he does today.

“When the electricity sector functions as it should, no one cares about the multibillion-rand industry behind the power plug. And that's how it should be. But when there is no electricity, then you're in trouble and you want to know more."

He doesn't think of himself as an expert. “I'm just speaking common sense — it's not rocket science at all. I simply understand how engineers and organisations like Eskom speak, and I try to make it understandable in plain language for people."

Does he see any light on South Africa's power horizon? “We should never feel that we can't do anything. We have absolutely no reason to be in this position. Our country has so many natural resources: sun, wind, even coal. And we have wonderful human potential. We just need to develop it. We don't have an energy crisis, we have a management crisis, a government crisis." Therefore, he has hope. “We simply need to put our heads together and solve this problem."

Behind the scenes

We're talking about Vietnam, where 9,000MW was brought online within a year. Chris explains that this was made possible through a combination of policy and political will, and by involving citizens and the private sector in the solution. Although he sees things starting to happen behind the scenes, he is skeptical about whether South Africa will be able to pull off such a feat. “There are still too many do-littles and naysayers here."

He warns against too many ministers and committees, too many people who talk a lot but do very little. “It doesn't work at all in a crisis. The country needs a small team that can make quick decisions. And we need to maintain the right balance between short-term and long-term planning."

Chris is dismissive of last Friday's court ruling that excluded hospitals, schools and police stations from load-shedding. “I don't think it's a well thought out decision. Has anyone ever counted how many state schools there are? Or hospitals and police stations? And should you not include, for example, fire stations and clinics in this?"

A court decision is one thing but implementing it is another, and Chris  explains that it might work only if such institutions are connected to the electricity system through dedicated switches or in cities and large towns where the metro decides whose power gets cut during load-shedding.

But what if Eskom cuts off the power to an entire village during load shedding? “It's not just logistically extremely difficult, but also financially. Because if it is argued that such institutions, for example, need generators to ensure constant power supply, who will pay for that? And who will pay for the fuel? Who will ensure that it is ordered on time?"


Chris Yelland in a nutshell: One of six children. Married to Ianthe, a retired teacher, for more than 40 years. Father of three (two daughters and a son). He attended King Edward School but didn't feel like he fit in because he “wasn't at all sporty." He divides his time between Johannesburg and a beach house in Ramsgate that he bought years ago with his father.


BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you! 

Speech Bubbles

Om kommentaar te lewer op hierdie artikel, registreer (dis vinnig en gratis) of meld aan.

Lees eers Vrye Weekblad se Kommentaarbeleid voor jy kommentaar lewer.