Johannesburg - Brace yourselves for the worst. Stage 6 load shedding, which the country experienced on December 9, is set to become more frequent as Eskom’s plant breakdowns remain at dangerously high levels.
Stage 6 means 6000 megawatts need to be shed from the national grid to avert its collapse.
In Gauteng, where load shedding intervals last four hours, Eskom customers could be without electricity for an average of 10 hours a day.
Last night, Eskom’s tale of woe was worsened by the announcement that Jabu Mabuza, the board chair, had quit after the utility could not meet a pledge made to President Cyril Ramaphosa to avoid load shedding until next week.
Last weekend, Eskom implemented stage 2 power cuts, dropping 2000MW from the grid, which continued until yesterday. But had demand been at normal levels, it would have been necessary to move to stage 6 last weekend.
“Given the current lack of effective forward planning and poor execution on our capacity expansion strategy, stage 6 may well be a common occurrence for the foreseeable future,” said Des Muller, the managing director for Nu-Energy Developments.
“Not only does an unreliable power system constrain our economy, but it also deters local and foreign investment into our economy to help alleviate unprecedented levels of unemployment in South Africa.”
Experiencing stage 6 regularly would be detrimental.
“This will place South Africa on par with most African countries where only the minority have access to very expensive or own-generated electricity.”
Energy expert Lungile Mashele said continued outages at stage 6 could signal the shutdown of the economy.
“Industries, businesses and residents will not be able to proceed with business. Further downgrades are to be expected with a negative outlook for the economy,” she said.
“While hospitals are seldom load shed and have generators as back-ups, this is not the case, however, for palliative care institutions and houses where people are on life support systems. Those people are in danger and there have been fatalities due to load shedding.
“Load shedding that persists at this nature will have an impact on foreign direct investment, political and economic stability, employment and economic growth.”
Eskom said plant breakdowns must be limited to 9500MW of capacity to avoid load shedding. Over the past two weeks, however, breakdowns have been substantially higher, reaching 14096MW last Friday, while Monday’s breakdowns stood at 13119MW at 6am.
Over 2019 as a whole, Eskom’s energy availability factor was 67%, compared with 72% over 2018 and 79% over 2017. The last two weeks of December saw the energy availability factor hit 59.7% and 58% respectively.
Professor Hartmut Winkler from the department of physics at the University of Johannesburg expects the power situation to get far worse before it gets better.
“Things could certainly get worse, especially if some of the remaining coal plants that have been performing reasonably to date also experience major breakdowns,” said Winkler.
“Permanent stage 2 load shedding, occasionally rising to stage 4 or even stage 6, is not unthinkable in the current state of affairs.
“Some people are even advocating that this is the way to go, as it would make it easier for Eskom to catch up on its delayed maintenance schedule.”
Winkler said it could take around five years before the power utility recovered.
“In five years, Medupi and Kusile can hopefully be completed and, even more importantly, a massive amount of renewable energy generating capacity can be put in place.
“The latter of course requires governmental support, but the present minister that has the power to initiate the renewable power development process seems to be very slow and even reluctant, to do so.”
With load shedding remaining on the cards indefinitely at this stage, Mashele warned South Africans to expect the worst.
“I’d love to say things can’t get worse, but this week we hit an excess of 15000MW, which was out for unplanned maintenance. This has never happened in the organisation’s 96-year history. Eskom has a problem with its ageing fleet and overdue maintenance,” said Mashele. “We should expect load shedding for many months to come. Eskom should communicate this as fact - tell people that for the next 18 months we need to maintain our system and thus will be at stage 1 load shedding daily. This creates transparency, accountability and reliability.”
Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl, editor of ESI Africa, an energy industry journal, said the electricity supply industry was likely to remain constrained for a number of years.
“Commercial and industrial businesses and the public must be prepared to actively manage the impact as we can no longer expect a reliable supply of electricity,” she said. “The electricity supply system will take years to be brought back up to speed.”
There is also the looming threat of a national blackout. While this may be a distant threat, it could very well be a possibility in the future, said Winkler.
“There is still some way to go before that situation is reached and I think this is still only a distant threat. Bear in mind also that Eskom preferably likes to schedule its planned maintenance in December/January as that is when demand is lowest.
“That is why when we had stage 6 in December, some plants were off even though they were not actually faulty. If there is a crisis looming on the scale of a national blackout, then Eskom will probably return idle plants to operation sooner than planned, though this can take days or even weeks, so I’m not going to claim that a national blackout is not possible.”
Mashele agreed the threat of a national blackout was real.
“The reason we are load shedding is to avoid a national blackout. That’s how serious the issue is. Load shedding by its nature is an extreme event to try to salvage a system that is not meeting capacity and is about to lead to a system collapse, which will lead to a blackout.”
South Africa has only once experienced a national blackout - in December 1975. This was caused by a switch that malfunctioned in the Northern Cape. Should the country experience another, it would signal disaster.
A total blackout, said Mashele, would mean a complete shutdown of the economy and possibly the region.
“No movement, no travel, no food, no water, no work or schooling. People will stockpile food, water and fuel and the poorest will feel the impact the most.”
Eskom said yesterday it would continue to work around the clock to increase generating capacity and blamed years of “inadequate maintenance” for the system’s vulnerability to breakdowns and unplanned outages.
“Lack of maintenance leading to a large number of generators not being ready for service and resulting in failure of units while generating, is why we are experiencing load shedding,” said Professor Willie Cronje, of the school of electrical and information engineering at Wits University.
Winkler agreed. “Like with an old car, breakdowns will become more frequent and difficult to fix with age, especially if the car/plant has not been maintained properly. Many of the coal plants still operating were supposed to have been retired by now.
“Medupi and Kusile are still not finished. Furthermore, they have cost Eskom more than double of the initial projection, and are the main reason for Eskom’s cash crunch. I also do not dismiss sabotage claims, though the majority of breakdowns are unlikely to be linked to that.”
Mashele agreed that sabotage could not be ruled out.
“However, the major reason boils down to maintenance. Eskom’s headache are boiler tube leaks, a common cause of outages and generation loss in thermal power plants.”