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Load shedding: South Africans could be left in the dark during the festive season

Unplanned breakdowns could also lead to stage four load shedding. Photographer Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA).

Unplanned breakdowns could also lead to stage four load shedding. Photographer Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA).

Published Nov 6, 2021


Johannesburg - As frustrated South Africans battled with Stage 2 and then Stage 4 load shedding yesterday, experts predict not only are we facing a possible threat of a Covid-19 fourth wave in December, we could be in for a dark and gloomy festive period of load rolling blackouts this year.

“We are especially vulnerable to load shedding from September to April. We can certainly expect a constrained system for the first two weeks of December, and as people start taking their holidays and industry shuts down, there will be less demand in the second half of December,” said energy expert Lungile Mashele

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“However, last year, we experienced load shedding during the last week of December – this shows just how unpredictable the system can be.”

Mashele also hasn’t ruled out the possibility of the country plunging into stage four load shedding during the festive season.

“Nothing is off-limits when it comes to Eskom,” said Mashele. “They are battling to meet the demand of 27 000MW at the moment. Any further breakdowns or trips could see us in stage 4 or even stage 6.”

Sinovuyo Bhungane (R), 9, looks on as her studies are interrupted by her cousin Yonga, as she studies using candle light during load shedding in Soweto. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.

Professor Hartmut Winkler from the Department of Physics at the University of Johannesburg agrees.

“Load shedding during the festive season is always a possibility,” said Winkler.

“Eskom, in principle, has enough capacity to cover the country’s electricity requirements at all times of the year. The problem is that power plants can break down. When you have old power stations (like most of our existing coal plants), breakdowns will happen more often.

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“I like using the analogy between Eskom’s fleet of power stations and a company’s fleet of cars. If your cars are all old, and they were not looked after properly in the past, they will break down more often.

“On some days, all your old cars will be working fine. On other days, you may be unlucky, and many cars break down at the same time. When that happens, then you run into a serious temporary crisis, and that is effectively what leads to load shedding.

“So, even though Eskom thinks they will have enough capacity during the Christmas period, if we are very unlucky and they suffer several simultaneous breakdowns, then load shedding can be the result, even over Christmas.”

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Currently, South Africans have been experiencing regular blackouts this week – and just a day after the elections.

Mashele said of Eskom’s 49 000+ MW that is installed, approximately 30 000MW is available to supply demand in South Africa on most days.

“The rest of it is either on planned or unplanned outages. The Eskom fleet is also prone to breakdowns because it is aged. This means there is very little room for planned maintenance, leaving their fleet vulnerable to further breakdowns.”

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Winkler adds that regular unexpected breakdowns have led to a severely constrained system.

“The more frequent breakdowns are an inevitable consequence of the ageing infrastructure (especially the old coal power stations) and the lack of proper maintenance during the last decade,” said Winkler.

“When certain former Eskom CEOs boast about there being less load shedding in their time, then that is often because they decided not to do proper regular maintenance work.”

Mashele has also slammed Eskom’s decision to load shed on short notice.

“This is highly problematic. Allow me to use the example of a textile factory. Spontaneous load shedding means workers need to down tools once, perhaps twice a day, depending on the stage of load shedding.

“This can be four hours of lost productivity daily. These workers are on a no work-no pay scheme. In order to earn their wages, these workers then have to work night shifts or over weekends.

“This has an impact on the actual textile factory and its ability to deliver to its clients on time, leading to a loss of contracts and delayed payments.

South Africa could be left in the dark due to ongoing load shedding during the December holidays. Picture: Itumeleng English.

“Now the impact is also being felt by school-going children who are writing exams, are unable to study as planned and need to use candlelight. There is also the added pressure of providing double of everything - back-up diesel if you have a generator, buying takeaways so you can eat in the evening, candles and paraffin.

“According to Nersa's cost of unserved energy, for each stage of load shedding, the economy loses R1bn a day. So, if we are on stage 4, that means our economy loses R4bn a day.”

Energy experts also expect load shedding to continue well into the new year.

“At the rate at which maintenance is not occurring at Eskom, we can expect load shedding indefinitely,” said Mashele. “The only thing that can stop load shedding now is new capacity brought online as quickly as possible.

“This is exactly why the Department of Mineral Resource and Energy sought to procure emergency generation capacity through the Risk Mitigation IPP programme. This programme has so far missed two deadlines for financial close. Load shedding will be a problem until we can get excess capacity online.

“That is why I am in support of the 100MW embedded generation programme. This will ease the load on Eskom and reduce their use of diesel significantly. I am also in support of all municipal interventions to source their own electricity.”

“I believe, as individuals, we have a role to play in reducing our energy usage, to procure devices such as a UPS and for those with deep pockets, removing the reliance on Eskom through the combined use of solar PV systems, gas and solar water heaters.”

Winkler also expects load shedding to continue into the new year.

“Very little new electricity generating capacity is expected in 2022. The situation will only improve once enough electricity generating capacity has been developed to cover the shortfall from the ageing plants that are sometimes already spending up to 50% of their time under repair.

“The logical way to achieve this would be to speed up the rollout of renewable energy plants, which can typically be built in two years. That is already part of the government’s electricity plan, but there have been inexplicable delays in the implementation by the Ministry of Mining and Energy.”

The country also urgently needs a revised long-term electricity plan, said, Winkler.

“The present one is already out of date. Once again, this is a responsibility of the Ministry of Mining and Energy.”

He said South Africans could expect load shedding for at least the next five years.

“Expect similar patterns as we have had in the last three years to continue for at least five years. Last week, the Ministry of Mining and Energy announced 25 new renewable energy projects. These will help, but they will only be ready in 2024.

“Similar new renewable energy allocations are expected annually, but at this rate (and with coal power plant breakdowns likely to get worse), this will not be enough to curtail load shedding for at least five years.

The Saturday Star