A black alert issued on Tuesday night, the first such crisis status to be aired by Eskom on television, was a mistake, Business Report has learnt, though the power utility has not provided an official response.

A black alert asks viewers to switch off every electrical appliance except one light and a television set and is only aired when power supply reserves have been completely depleted.

It left Eskom’s large industrial users in the dark about whether last year’s emergency, when they received requests to reduce consumption by 10 percent, would be repeated.

The Energy Intensive User Group of Southern Africa had indicated that its members would help deal with a short-term supply crisis if requested, its chairman, Mike Rossouw, said yesterday.

The group understood this to mean an hour or two only on specific days when the system was “very, very tight”, he said.

Eskom’s industrial customers approached by Business Report said they had not received any requests to reduce their electricity consumption this year.

From 7am yesterday until close of business, the power alert status sat on red, indicating increasing strain on the electricity supply, but Eskom said usage was stable.

The utility said it was likely that people would continue to see the red alert until March.

Eskom warned on Tuesday that electricity usage was “exceptionally high” after it had forecast on Monday that the system would be tight for the three days until today.

“The system gets constrained to varying degrees throughout summer. We’ve already seen demand increase as our major customers return to production,” spokesman Andrew Etzinger said.

“Demand in manufacturing has increased and the reserve margin is very constrained.”

As the state-owned company grapples with this immediate power supply challenge, it is pulling out all the stops to commission the Medupi power station on time and is hoping for early success on that front.

The utility had made a decisive decision to adopt its plan B for the power station project, Etzinger said, and had appointed Siemens to take over various portions of Alstom’s contract to install the control and instrumentation system.

Siemens had been brought in to work alongside Alstom, he said, as the French company was lagging behind schedule in delivering the boiler protection software, which Eskom wanted to have installed in unit 6 by June this year.

“The appointment of Siemens certainly deals with significant delivery risks that we had. We are managing the project with a high degree of vigour and we are confident in our ability to deliver on our new deadline,” Etzinger said.

Unit 6, the first of Medupi’s generating modules to be integrated into the grid, is expected to be commissioned in the second half of this year. This follows several delays, the latest of which was caused by problems in the control and instrumentation system.

Eskom has already served its two biggest contractors at Medupi, Alstom and Hitachi Power Africa, with bills for cost overruns and has evoked clauses that will see them pay for any further overruns on their portions of the project.

Alstom’s performance bond was called by the utility in March last year.

Yesterday, Eskom said it had not called Hitachi’s performance bond.

Alstom directed all questions about its contract status to Eskom.