Durban - Eskom is fighting a touch-and-go battle to prevent the catastrophic collapse of the country’s electricity grid.
The energy supplier has implemented stage 3 load shedding, a final measure to avert disaster.
For now the parastatal remains in control of the country’s supply, but warned that if the power demand did not drop in coming weeks the system would collapse, resulting in rolling blackouts which would probably bring the country to a standstill.
Eskom measures power shortages in terms of stage 1, 2 and 3 – with 3 being the most severe. Stage 3 load shedding was put in place over the weekend to allow for a build-up of supply for the week ahead.
The supplier’s electricity-generating infrastructure has been hit hard by a number of issues including depleted water reserves and logistical issues relating to diesel supplies at power stations, and the shutdown of two open-cycle gas turbine power stations which use diesel to generate electricity.
The diesel reserves have been depleted at the Gourikwa and Ankerlig gas turbines leading to the shutdown of the power stations.
The Drakensberg and Palmiet pumped storage schemes, which use water to generate electricity, have reduced output as a result of depleted water reserves.
A further 1 000MW of capacity is offline after three coal-powered units tripped on Thursday because of technical faults. Certain power stations are also in dire need of maintenance and are not functioning optimally.
The country is now increasingly dependent on the limited amount of electricity being bought from Mozambique and Namibia.
Even if demand falls over the weekend, Eskom says there are no guarantees of a load shedding-free festive season and electricity supply would remain unstable until at least 2019 when the Medupi, Kusile and Ingula power plants go online.
“Stage 3 is bad, definitely. We are 4 500MW short of electricity which is a lot. It’s a big problem. It’s seriously big,” said Khulu Phasiwe, a spokesman for Eskom, adding that the Medupi, Kusile and Ingula plants, even when online, would barely cover the shortfall.
He said diesel supply was beyond the control of the organisation.
“We are low on diesel that our generators need. Diesel is not an Eskom domain. We buy from our supplier, Petro SA and Chevron, and they, in turn, are waiting for their suppliers.”
He said generators were unable to supply power optimally.
“The reason we load shed is because there is more demand than the capacity to supply. We are load shedding to prevent a collapse of the system, the power-generating grid.
“Right now we are in control because with rotational load shedding we can determine which areas, and at what times there is no power. But if the system collapses there will be uncontrolled, rolling blackouts where power will go randomly and we will not be able to stop it.
“Load shedding is not a good thing but it is necessary at this stage. We don’t even talk about what comes after this. This is as serious as it gets. After this there is no control.”
The last time a system experienced catastrophic failure was in 2001 when the California grid collapsed and a state of emergency was declared. It required a reboot of the entire grid and three weeks to end rolling blackouts in the US state.
“That has never happened to us. We don’t even want to think about that. In the case of California they had neighbours with capacity who could supply them. We don’t have that. The most we get from Mozambique is 1 500MW, there is no one in Africa who can supply 40 000MW to us.”
Phasiwe said the organisation was working around the clock on emergency maintenance and repairs to infrastructure.
“The problem is we have been running some of this infrastructure so hard for so long that we haven’t been able to prepare it for maintenance,” he said.
Phasiwe urged South Africans to cut back on their electricity usage.
“We are all in this together.”
The eThekwini municipality’s electricity department head, Sandile Maphumulo, said the situation had become serious for the city.
“Load shedding, whether it happens once a day or twice a day, is a terrible inconvenience. But as utilities and distributors we take instruction from Eskom and have to adjust accordingly,” he said.
Andrew Layman, chief executive of the Durban Chamber of Commerce, said load shedding had been devastating for Durban businesses.
“Even the humblest business depends on computers and other electrical appliances, but not everyone can afford generators. This means load shedding is causing interruptions in business all the time, and these interruptions have a very negative impact on the economy. Who would want to invest here? It’s a shambles,” said Layman.
Spiga D’Oro restaurant manager Sam Makumire said load shedding was affecting business badly.
“Last week was very bad. We had load shedding for five hours. We use gas stoves, but we didn’t have air-conditioning so many customers were unhappy and left,” said Makumire.
A manager at Moyo, on the uShaka pier, said load shedding was making it almost impossible to do business.
Brett Wilson, general manager at Remo’s Villagio, said despite having a generator his business was struggling. “It’s very frustrating that load shedding always seems to happen during our busiest times, like a Friday afternoon. Even with our generator it’s challenging because we can’t run our coffee machines, cold rooms, fridges and terminals off it.”
“It’s absolute rubbish,” said Ian Louw, manager of the Wimpy in Margate. “We have a generator but it is costing us a fortune in diesel. It’s unacceptable that Eskom has the monopoly, because it means there is nothing we can do. And it’s not as though Eskom is even following their online schedule, so there is no way to predict when it will happen.”