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Load shedding expected to continue after national lockdown

By Sameer Naik Time of article published Apr 7, 2020

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Load shedding is expected to resume once South Africa ends its Covid-19 national lockdown.

Despite a significant reduction in demand for electricity during the lockdown, energy experts believe that it's only a matter of time before South Africans experience blackouts again.

“Electricity is generated only as it is needed,” said Des Muller, the director of NuEnergy Developments.

“This supply/demand balance is managed by the grid. Unless it can be practically and economically stored, the surplus capacity we have today will provide no benefit for the future.

“Storing electricity in these quantities is not a viable option and certainly not an overnight solution.”

Electricity use has dropped by between 7500MW and 9000MW since the lockdown came into effect last week. While it has brought some relief to the embattled power utility, Muller said it's also brought new problems for Eskom.

“With the closure of our mines, large industries and business, the demand for electricity has dropped by almost half.

“This means that, even with the low availability of its power plants, Eskom has surplus capacity and will likely resort to shutting down a few units to balance supply and demand. The intermittency of renewable energy does not help the situation either. This may pose challenges for Eskom to procure some of this energy under these extraordinary conditions.”

Muller believed Eskom will also be unable to fully use the 21-day period to restore and fix issues at its fleet of coal-fired power stations.

“Due to the lockdown, Eskom is also not in a position to mobilise a large workforce onto its power plants to execute non-essential repairs and refurbishments.

“Although the industrial capacity is available, cramming many people into confined spaces on these power plants would be counter-productive toward the intent of the lockdown. Therefore, only emergency repairs are being executed.”

Professor Harmut Winkler from the Department of Physics at the University of Johannesburg agreed that load shedding will resume after the lockdown.

“The energy we are saving from electricity now cannot be utilised in the distant future.

“While there are some electricity storage options, these are minimal compared to the total annual electricity requirements. The stored electricity will last a day.

“It's like charging a frequently-used cellphone, you can charge it by plugging it in continuously for weeks, but once unplugged it will typically not last for more than a day or two.”

Winkler also believed that the lockdown is having a mostly negative impact on Eskom.

“Decreased demand and consumption mean lower electricity sales and therefore lower income.

“Where it is helping Eskom is that the need to buy emergency gas supplies for gas power stations, which can be very expensive, is no longer there.

“It also gives Eskom the space to deal with some issues that cannot be dealt with when there is a power shortage crisis. For the broader public and various enterprises the low likelihood of load shedding and reduced electricity costs for closed premises will seem like a positive, but the shutdown is certainly not going to help Eskom's balance sheet.”

Energy expert Lungile Mashele believed the lockdown will prove to be a “double-edged sword” for Eskom.

“Most energy-intensive industry and businesses will be shut down meaning that we will have reduced demand on the grid.

“This will enable Eskom to focus on other operational and maintenance issues apart from security of supply.

“That said, reduced demand means less collection thus less revenue for Eskom, and eventually a knock-on effect on their financial position.”

Compounding these woes will be the domino effect that consumer and company financial difficulty will have on municipalities and their ability to pay Eskom, Mashele said.

Mashele believed, however, that a protracted lockdown could possibly minimise load shedding in the future “especially a protracted lockdown period of two months.

“The 18-month leeway that Eskom requested to perform maintenance will definitely be shortened.

“In the macroeconomic context, South Africa entered a recession prior to the lockdown.

“Industry and corporate had scaled back production and output, we could see it in the mass retrenchments. The government tried through the State of the Nation Address to boost investor confidence by announcing various concessions and reforms.

“These efforts were scuppered by the decline in the oil price, the volatility of the rand, the crash of the global markets and Moody’s downgrade to junk.

“Coronavirus and the resultant lockdown were the final death knell for South Africa's economy.

"Demand for electricity during this period has dropped to levels not seen in over two decades.”

Meanwhile, Eskom said to protect the integrity of the system it has taken some generation units off the grid.

“These units are available to return to service at short notice should the need arise.

“We are also taking advantage of this downturn to carry out critical repairs and maintenance in our power stations and other infrastructure.

"From our side, we are doing all that is necessary to keep the lights on.”

The Saturday Star

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