Johannesburg - Sixteen hours of no electricity - welcome to the near future where rolling blackouts are set to get a whole lot worse.
Winter is coming up and with it experts expect energy demand to increase substantially with Eskom having to introduce even higher stages of load shedding, with Stage 16 not being ruled out.
By not introducing higher stages of load shedding, South Africa could be plunged into a national blackout, an experience our neighbour Botswana endured this week.
“Things will certainly get worse once we get into the deeper months of winter, around late July and August,” warned energy expert Lungile Mashele.
Now, he said, Stage 16 load shedding was becoming a real possibility for South Africans even though Eskom’s National Rationalised Specifications (NRS) 048-9 document only allows for Stage 8. But this document is being updated and is likely, he said, to introduce planning to go to Stage 16.
“Now if I just extrapolate from the current stages we have and go into Stage 16, suffice it to say that Stage 16 will be double of Stage 8,” he said.
“In essence, if we have around eight hours of load shedding during Stage 8, you can only imagine how bad Stage 16 will be.
“You’ll be looking at about 16 hours without electricity but obviously this is what the NRS document needs to clarify and update us on.”
Currently South Africa is struggling to generate 25 gigawatts (GW) of electricity but as demand increases during winter demand is expected to balloon to 36GW, leaving a possible shortfall of 10GW.
The NRS Association of South Africa has also confirmed Eskom’s plans to move to higher stages of load shedding.
NRS chairperson Vally Padaychee confirmed a move beyond Stage 8.
“We do anticipate a move beyond Stage 8, given the status of the current grid,’ said Padaychee.
“We cannot guarantee that we won’t go beyond Stage 6, let alone Stage 8.This was in the context of the coming winter period and the declining state of generation.
“It’s being practical and pragmatic; we anticipate, given the winter period coming now and the status of generation and the grid, that we cannot guarantee that we will not go beyond Stage 8, so edition 3 will further protect the national grid at a very high level.”
The introduction of these higher stages is to prevent a countrywide blackout that could plunge South Africa into darkness for days or maybe even weeks. Even though this did occur in Botswana, experts say that it was unlikely it would happen in South Africa.
Professor Hartmut Winkler, from the Department of Physics at the University of Johannesburg, said a total blackout would be triggered should the current oscillating frequency of the grid drift too far from the prescribed 50 Hertz.
He said this would happen if points along the grid, including power plants, tripped one after the other, resulting in zero electricity everywhere.
“Many days of economic activity would be lost before full electricity supply is recovered.” The consequences of a blackout would be disastrous, he said.
“It would be far-reaching, and would include possible looting and vandalism,” he said.
“It could also lead to fuel shortages, which in turn would affect transport and industry and a host of facilities that use backup generators such as hospitals, laboratories and morgues.”
Winkler said rolling power cuts were the best practical way to prevent a grid collapse and total blackout.
“Nonetheless, a grid collapse cannot be ruled out if, for example, a set of poorly performing coal plants all break down in quick succession.”
Botswana was able to kick start its grid with some help from South Africa.
Yesterday, the new electricity minister, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, emphasised at a media briefing that a national blackout was unlikely.
“If we were not running the open cycle gas turbines at the rate we are running, we could be at higher levels of load shedding,” said Ramokgopa.
But for South Africans the pain is set to continue well past this winter.
“Next year is likely to be similar or slightly worse to this year (depending on how well the government manages the situation), and noticeable improvement is only likely towards the end of 2024,” said Winkler.
“To effectively eliminate load shedding altogether would however take five years, again, only if the government manages the situation properly.”