Eskom proposes R16bn smart-meter rollout to all households

Eskom chairperson Mpho Makwana said demand-side management was not unique to South Africa. Photo: Supplied

Eskom chairperson Mpho Makwana said demand-side management was not unique to South Africa. Photo: Supplied

Published Apr 25, 2023


Eskom has proposed to embark on a R16 billion programme of installing smart meters in every household in South Africa over the next four years in a bid to recover at least 7 000MW into the grid, and end load shedding.

If this demand-management strategy is given the green light, it would represent a change of approach in Eskom’s cocktail to end rotational power cuts, as load shedding is a tactic of limiting electricity supply based on generation capacity.

Eskom first touted an approach to demand-side management in 2012, when it warned that 3 000MW of committed capacity from supply and demand initiatives was needed immediately to keep the lights on and enable maintenance to continue.

Eskom chief engineer Edison Makwarela yesterday said this initiative would cost at least R16bn. And if he got his wish it would be rolled out “as quickly as possible” and completed within four years, maximum.

Makwarela was speaking at the inaugural National Demand-Side Management Indaba attended by industry stakeholders including intensive energy-user groups, independent power producers, the Minerals Council and others.

He said the demand-side management strategy would work like cellphone tariffs where users are billed varying amounts of airtime, depending on the time of day they make phone calls.

“With regard to smart meters, we need to bring in what we call time-of-use-tariff. It’s a form of demand management,” Makwarela said.

“It’s a pricing signal but what it does is that you as a customer decide if it’s too expensive at this time, I can reduce my load; or when it’s cheaper I can cook. Basically what we are saying is that if you are consuming electricity at a certain time, it becomes expensive and if you are consuming at a standard time it becomes cheaper.”

A smart meter is an advanced type of digital electricity meter that records when, and how much electricity is consumed and deducts the amount consumed from a prepaid balance loaded by the customer.

Smart prepaid meters are capable of two-way communication between the meter and Eskom, enabling the power utility to read information off the meter; detect power outages; and meter-tampering; and to send information to the meter such as programming updates.

Automated instructions are also sent to the meter to interrupt the power supply when your prepaid account balance reaches zero, and to reconnect supply once you have loaded credit.

Makwarela said this was called “load-limiting”, which is another form of demand management, an alternative to load shedding and load reduction.

Normally, electricity suppliers install geyser controls in consumers’ houses, but instead of doing that we would rather say to you this is 60kWh you are supposed to get, I am load-limiting you to 10Mk/Wh,” Makwarela said.

“… I’m supposed to load shed you but I will not. Instead switch off (appliances) because if you don’t switch off your geyser for example, it’s going to cut you off anyway.

“If the excess load is not removed by a customer during the load-limiting stage, the meter will disconnect the customer for a period determined by the utility – anything between 30 minutes to two hours,” he said.

Some at the indaba welcomed the demand-side management approach by Eskom, highlighting that it was an international phenomenon on the back of constrained power supply, but they said communication with all stakeholders was essential.

Eskom chairperson Mpho Makwana said demand-side management was not unique to South Africa, nor was load shedding.

“With demand-side management, when we engage in this conversation we should not engage in it as though it’s a South African problem. Perhaps the severity is more visible in South Africa, but believe me all sorts of case studies show they are global,” Makwana said.

“In South Africa we have often only spoken about demand-side or demand-response programmes purely in terms of switching off geysers and pool-pumps, yet global case studies show that some countries (Australia, UK, Japan) are quite advanced technology-wise, using artificial intelligence tech to use predictive behaviour in terms of electricity use.

“And at some point we are going to have to advance beyond figuring out how to do a national call for switching off geysers and pool pumps,” Makwana said.

Independent energy expert Lungile Mashele said Eskom’s idea was a good one as the key loads they wanted to monitor were geysers, pool pumps and to remotely switch these off during peak times.

Mashele, however, said there were cost issues that needed to be considered since South Africa was a developing country with many people unemployed and poor.

“Smart meters are not new and have been implemented worldwide. The issue is the cost, if they are free there will be uptake. A normal prepaid meter is upwards of R2 000. So a smart meter would be incrementally more,” Mashele said.

“The other issue is that of non-payment: you will recall residents in some parts of Soweto were opposed to normal prepaid meters…

“Also, smart meters are tamper-proof but operating in a South African context I don’t know if this is true.

“The idea is brilliant because then they can limit load, and see in real time if there’s tampering, as well as receive their money upfront instead of 90 days late,” Mashele said.