Johannesburg - As South Africans are in the grip of a gruelling winter season with icy temperatures, energy experts have warned of an increase in blackouts in the upcoming weeks.
With Eskom's power system under severe pressure, coupled with increased winter demands and an increase in illegal connections, the likelihood of load shedding has drastically increased.
“There was a temporary reprieve during the hard lockdown. However, the system status has returned to normal,” said energy expert Lungile Mashele.
“Current electricity demand is back to where it was prior to the lockdown, and will increase as we see one of the coldest winters in the last decade.
“During the hard 21-day lockdown, Eskom experienced a decline in demand in excess of 5000MW from a peak demand of 30000MW just before the lockdown. But, because of the limited notice, and the closure of borders, Eskom was unable to take full advantage of this period to carry out routine maintenance.”
The sharp decline in demand also meant that Eskom had a lot of contracted demand it would be liable for.
“To curb this liability, Eskom opted to shut down some of their plants and negotiate with IPPs to curtail their plants and rather extend their contract than to pay them for their capacity.
“After the lockdown, demand increased gradually because mining houses and industry resumed operations. During this time, Eskom also suffered a massive revenue loss from both domestic and regional demand.”
Demand for electricity was expected to further increase in the upcoming two months as South Africa approached its peak in Covid-19 cases.
Mashele said hospitals, industries, and homes would soon be competing for electricity for life-saving machines, manufacturing and space heating.
“A reliable electricity supply is of utmost importance as it could leave poor people even more vulnerable having to battle the elements, and protect their health simultaneously.
“Given the Covid infection demographic in South Africa and apartheid spatial planning, it means that the poor will be double hit as we are already seeing with outages in most townships over the last week due to overloading.
“It's also important to note that when Covid deaths spiral out of control, as they did in Italy, Brazil, and the US, conventional burial becomes an issue. The next alternative will be cremations. Cremations are energy-intensive, and we will see a surge in electricity demand.”
Eskom had indicated that the country may only experience sporadic stage 1 load shedding in the coming months.
However, with demand expected to increase drastically, Mashele said South Africans should brace themselves for more frequent load shedding, with stage 6 also remaining a possibility.
“With demand having gone back to pre-lockdown levels, and with one of the coldest winters in the last decade, load shedding at stage 6 is not off limits.”
Another energy expert, Nicolette Pombo-Van Zyl, said it was crucial that Eskom was able to supply adequate electricity during South Africa's peak in Covid-19 cases.
“In some areas when the power is cut, so too is access to water for proper hand sanitisation. It will be important for hospitals, clinics and makeshift Covid-19 hospitals (such as at the CTICC) to have access to reliable power.”
Des Muller, the managing director for Nu-Energy Developments, said due to global cooling, this winter could be particularly cold. This means that load shedding was likely as we enter stage 2 of the lockdown and industry goes back to work.
“Although lockdown and reduced energy demand gave Eskom an opportunity to shut many units down and do proper maintenance, but whether they took advantage of this opportunity, can only be commented on by Eskom's maintenance contractors,” said Muller.
Professor Hartmut Winkler, from the Department of Physics at the University of Johannesburg, believes the lockdown has impacted Eskom both positively and negatively.
“On the one hand, the lockdown and associated significantly lowered electricity demand, has allowed Eskom to take many of its units off the grid for repairs and routine maintenance work,” said Winkler.
“So their power units are presumably in slightly better shape, and thus, less likely to break down unexpectedly.
“But the decreased electricity demand has resulted in lower than normal electricity sales, and therefore, Eskom will be collecting a lot less revenue this year. This is very bad for their already disastrous financial state.
Winkler said, right now, there was almost no way for Eskom to store large amounts of electrical energy for more than a few hours.”
“If Eskom generates more electricity than needed on any particular day, almost all of that would be lost. That is why Eskom voluntarily switched off some perfectly functional power stations during the last few months.”
Winkler said Eskom needed to do everything in its power to avoid load shedding during winter and through South Africa's peak in Covid-19 cases.
“Health facilities should have backup power. I am not an expert in the state of the health sector, so I do not know how many hospitals and clinics are really in a position to switch on backup power generators. There may well be health facilities where this is a potential serious threat.
“But even though it may not be a significant direct health threat, load shedding should be avoided if possible so as not to disrupt online communication, and even just to boost the public's morale.”
Meanwhile, Eskom says despite its power system being under severe pressure, they are not expecting load shedding for now.
Eskom's Sikonathi Mantshantsha said the power utility had to switch off electricity in high-density areas with high numbers of illegal connections.
“We have been battling, particularly in the residential areas of Gauteng. The high-density areas where you have a lot of illegal connections and overloading.
"When the infrastructure gets overloaded, we get a lot of transformers exploding due to the overload. There will be people inconvenienced and they should not be."
The power utility is urging people to use electricity sparingly as the system faces enormous pressure.