File photo: Reuters

Johannesburg -

Are we on the brink of rolling blackouts? That was the question being asked on Thursday when Eskom declared a power emergency, calling on its 138 key industrial customers to cut at least 10 percent of power usage.

Commercial customers such as shopping centres were called on to switch off geysers immediately and adjust air-conditioning to 23°C.

Residential customers were called on to switch off geysers, aircons and anything non-essential.

The utility stopped short of load shedding but warned direct customers to check load shedding schedules online.

The emergency was expected to be over by 9pm but the situation would be reviewed.

Eskom’s Andrew Etzinger said that at, almost the same time, generators at four different coal-fired power stations in Mpumalanga started giving trouble in unrelated incidents. This was in addition to other generators down for maintenance. “That put us into a situation where we had virtually no reserves,” said Etzinger.

That meant there would be problems with the evening peak usage period, when residential power use surges.

The outage totalled 7 000MW across the grid. “That would be the equivalent of two full six-pack power stations,” said Etzinger.

Power supply nationwide was also affected after imports from Mozambique came to a halt this week. “That’s normally a very reliable supply. A power line snapped. It’s a relatively minor fault to repair but the problem is that it is at a remote location.”

Etzinger said the large industrial customers tended to be mines and smelters in northern parts of the country and KwaZulu-Natal. They are cutting back on an agreed principle,” he said. This year Eskom was running at about 4 000MW down a day on average, a bit better than the average of 6 000MW down a day at the end of last year.

It’s the second power emergency in the past few months, the last being in November. Etzinger said there had been a power supply constraint that “has existed since 2007”. Its last load shedding was in January 2008. That meant countrywide power cuts.

“This is not business as usual. It is a serious situation. We will not allow it to deteriorate to a crisis,” said Etzinger.

“We can’t rule out the possibility of load shedding. It’s a method to keep the system in balance.

“We are determined to prevent load shedding but we need support from the public. If each of us can reduce a little bit here and there, if we can all switch off our geysers when we go home, there is no reason for load shedding.”

The DA asked: “Is South Africa on the brink of rolling blackouts? This is of great concern.”

“It seems South Africa is yet again on the brink of major black-outs which would be disastrous for our economy in general and job-creation in particular,” said Natasha Michael, the party’s spokeswoman on public enterprises.

“South Africa needs to know what is happening with the Medupi power station and when it will come online… the project has been delayed three times, and the costs have increased from R91.2 billion to over R100bn,” she said.

“The guys are not happy because every time this happens they are asked to cut,” said Dick Kruger, spokesman on electricity for the Chamber of Mines.

It was too easy for Eskom to tell a group of big industries to cut back rather than hitting municipalities as well, he said. The chamber wants the burden of cuts to be spread across other sectors too.

The chamber had been talking to Eskom for years about spreading the problem more equitably to other sectors but hadn’t seen enough results, he said. Big industries had for years – since the 2008 load shedding crisis and subsequent big electricity price hikes – been trimming power usage as much as possible.

The Star