Cape Town - With less than 60 days to adhere to a court ruling to ensure public healthcare facilities, schools and police stations are exempted/protected from load shedding, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan has opted to lodge an “urgent appeal” to set aside the ruling due to the risk to the country’s grid.
The widely celebrated judgment, which would have secured uninterrupted electricity supply for all public healthcare facilities, schools and police stations, was handed down by the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, last Friday but has been criticised by government and energy analysts for its nearly impossible implementation.
The overwhelming sentiment was that even if the government and Eskom were able to adhere to the ruling, the risk of a national blackout would become severely higher and come at a staggering cost to Eskom and the National Treasury.
The court application was brought by 19 unions and political parties – including ActionSA, the UDM, IFP and the National Union of Metalworkers in South Africa (Numsa) – seeking to declare load shedding unconstitutional and to reduce its detrimental impact on certain critical sectors by exempting these from load shedding.
The judgment ruled that where it was not possible to isolate and exempt facilities embedded in their surrounding networks, Gordhan must ensure these facilities get generators and other alternate energy supplies to ensure uninterrupted electricity.
In a statement yesterday, Gordhan said his department had serious concerns about the implications of the court ruling on the current efforts to stabilise the national grid and get the country out of load shedding.
“The department has studied the ruling and has determined through legal advice that the prudent step to take is to lodge an appeal to set aside the ruling and allow for the ongoing efforts to end load shedding to proceed without putting undue risk on the country’s grid infrastructure,” Gordhan said.
The department believed that the judgment would have unintended consequences and undermine the efforts to balance the protection of the rights, with the need to stabilise and protect grid infrastructure.
Monique le Roux, a senior energy researcher at the CSIR, said it was technically possible to isolate all these public facilities and exempt them from load shedding, but practically it was going to be extremely difficult.
“Hospital, clinics, schools and police stations are, in most cases, embedded within a distribution network which is supplied from a particular sub-station. When Eskom or municipalities switch areas off, as per the load shedding schedule, the whole sub-station or a large part of the sub-station is switched off,” Le Roux said.
In order to exempt these embedded facilities from load shedding, the whole area surrounding these facilities would need to be exempt from load shedding or alternatively a new distribution line would need to be built from the sub-station specific to each facility.
“This is going to come at an enormous cost, together with the difficulty of finding servitude space for new lines in space constrained urban areas. And if the whole area is exempt from load shedding, it is going to create an additional burden on other areas who will then have to endure additional load shedding,” she said.
Seeing that so many areas have either a school, clinic, hospital or police station within them, Le Roux said it would mean that other areas would need to be switched off almost permanently to balance things out.
Although difficult to calculate, Le Roux added that conservatively it could cost between R6 million – R47m per site to build dedicated distribution lines.
Energy analyst Ruse Moleshe said as much as it was important for hospitals to have reliable supply and back-up capacity, the government would not be able to address this issue, especially given the six-month timeline.
“Not only is it difficult technically, but also financially it will require significant expenditure to buy dedicated generators, installations and diesel imports. Given the forecast R30 billion winter expenditure already planned, this is a tough ask.”
The government, under the now-cancelled state of disaster, had plans to address back-up generation capacity for hospitals, but not all of the hospitals could be assisted due to infrastructure constraint practicalities.
Moleshe said that situation had not changed.
“The government needs to come up with plans to increase generation capacity and unlock supply constraints for the entire energy system … that is a more sustainable solution.”
This was echoed by Le Roux, who said the court case and judgment was ill-informed from the start and that pressure should rather be placed on the government to get the country as a whole out of load shedding.
Eskom said it was still studying the judgment and could not comment at this stage.