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Welcome to the worst year of load shedding as energy experts warn of more outages this winter

File image.

File image.

Published May 28, 2022


Johannesburg - Energy experts in the country have warned South Africans to prepare for the worst as load shedding is expected to continue throughout winter.

With South Africans experiencing daily power cuts, experts say they won't be any let-up, with frequent power outages expected for the rest of the year.

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Lungile Mashele, an independent energy economist and a former energy specialist at the Development Bank of Southern Africa, said she expected regular load shedding to continue.

“This is expected to carry on throughout the winter period,” Mashele told the Saturday Star.

“Eskom mentioned 101 days of load shedding as an extreme scenario but, by the looks of things, that will in fact be the base scenario. We will have the worst year of load shedding.”

Picture by Itumeleng English.

Mashele has also warned that higher stages of load shedding, such as stage six, could not be ruled out.

“With the system as fragile as it is, one can't rule out any stage of load shedding. However, the threat of stage 8 is alarmist. Considering that Eskom load sheds at stage 2 daily and they load limit consumers in townships, have Interruptible load supply, Virtual Power Station and use their OCGTS and pumped storage is indication enough that demand far outstrips that 2 000MW of stage 2.”

This week, the power utility announced that it would be implementing stage 2 load shedding all week, during peak evening hours from 5pm to 10pm due to the continued shortage of generation capacity.

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The load shedding crisis, compounded by soaring fuel prices and a shortage of nurses, have also been cited as key risks faced by private health-care provider Netcare.

The private hospital chain said this week that although its medical resources weren't as strained as they were a year ago during a heightened phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, hospitals were under pressure from compounding socio-economic issues.

South Africa's failing power grid, with intensified bouts of rotational load shedding implemented by embattled utility Eskom, is chief among Netcare's worries.

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Mashele said she expected regular load shedding for at least the next two years.

“The overall scenario is expected to ease in 2024 when new generation capacity is expected,’ said Mashele.

“That said, with an effective maintenance programme, load shedding could be eased by mid-2023. It's also important to remember that if firm capacity is not introduced, load shedding will not end.

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“We have a problem with peak demand, especially in the evenings. The IRP 2019 gave a sound guideline for adding renewables and also gas to provide both firm capacity and counter voltage instability.”

An early morning picture taken at Matla Power Station in Mpumalanga Province. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Professor Hartmut Winkler, from the Department of Physics at the University of Johannesburg, was also expecting regular load shedding to continue for the foreseeable future.

“Load shedding is set to continue, and Eskom’s warning of possibly as many as 100 days this winter with load shedding is probably not far off the mark,” said Winkler.

“Note that Eskom is currently adopting a different strategy with load shedding implementation, targeting the peak demand period of 5pm to 10pm. Although this is also the most annoying time to lack power, especially for businesses mainly operating in the evenings, this seems in part designed to lessen disruption during the 8am to 5pm period of maximum economic activity.

“Load shedding will be part of our experience for the coming five years, although the severity and frequency of the blackouts won’t always be at the level we are seeing now – there may be weeks or even months when power supply will be adequate.”

Winkler said the country would continue to experience load shedding until sufficient new power plants existed to replace the current ones that were prone to frequent breakdowns.

“That takes years, though mild relief will come sooner in the form of the commissioning of the final units of Kusile power station, the finalisation of the Koeberg nuclear power station life extension upgrades in May next year (between now and then Koeberg is mostly operating at half-capacity), the completion (probably in early 2024) of the recently announced new wind and solar projects, and ongoing extensive construction of ‘private’ solar and wind facilities by some municipalities, mines, factories, agricultural enterprises and domestic homes.”

Just like Mashele, Winkler said no stage of load shedding should be ruled out.

“We had stage 6 a few years ago, and since then, the power shortage has gotten slightly worse. Stage 8 load shedding can never be ruled out, although the likelihood of us getting into that situation is relatively low.”

Winkler said there were several for the frequency of load shedding.

“It is the same old story of the coal power plants breaking down far too often, and that the efforts to replace these with newer power plants are proceeding too slowly. The plants are breaking down because of old age, construction flaws (new plants like Medupi and Kusile should not be suffering breakdowns at the rate at which they are) and sabotage.

“There is now clear evidence of the latter, though the motivation of the saboteurs still needs to be unravelled.”

Yonga Bhungane rests while illuminated by candle light during load shedding in Soweto February 3, 2015. South Africa's power utility Eskom will implement rolling blackouts on Tuesday from 1500 GMT to 2000 GMT, the state-owned company said on its official Twitter account. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.

Mashele added that Eskom’s lack of reliability maintenance was a big reason why the country experienced frequent load shedding.

“The main reason is that reliability maintenance was not carried out as planned, leading to further breakdowns and adding to the unreliability of the fleet. We also have a high EUF, which is a measure of how hard we run our plants – it goes without saying that if you run a plant hard and don't maintain it, it is susceptible to further breakdowns.

“Exacerbating this is the huge jump in demand as a result of the winter season, as we get deeper into winter and it gets colder expect even higher levels of load shedding – demand is forecasted to reach above 35 000MW this year – these are levels we have not seen in years.”

Mashele said it was imperative that Eskom implemented a proper reliability maintenance programme.

“They have over 30% of capacity in breakdowns, while new capacity may be needed, they still need to maintain their fleet. The new capacity required is to provide them sufficient buffer to do maintenance however we saw in 2015, how the ‘maintenance festival’ was accommodated by a constant stage 2 load shedding for a few months.”

Winkler added that it was also important that the government produce a revised, realistic and economically sensible electricity plan with urgency.

“Importantly, this plan must be drawn up with minimal political and lobby group pressure – these seem to be driving a lot of the decision-making, to the detriment of solving the electricity crisis.

“The last official electricity plan was published in 2019. These plans are supposed to be revised every two years, but I see no signs of work towards a new plan. Even if they start on it immediately, the time to draft such a plan, including the necessary consultations, is such that it probably cannot be finalised until next year.”

“Government is also inexcusably behind schedule in implementing the 2019 plan – if the timing had been as planned then the solar and wind plants approved recently would have been ready now (and not only in 2024), and these would have contributed to one stage less of load shedding.”

She added that the unpredictability of load shedding was a reflection of the vulnerability of Eskom’s systems.

“An electricity system needs to match demand and supply at all times in order to maintain voltage stability,” said Mashele.

“It is these rapid fluctuations in demand and supply which necessitate a change in the load shedding stage. For the most part, instability in the system is brought about by unforeseen breakdowns.

“However, adding to Eskom's misery is the intermittency associated with solar and the vast deployment of solar on residential roofs.

“While Eskom can forecast for seasonality and temperatures, things get complicated when you need to forecast for large clouds moving over vast residential areas. This intermittency introduces the need to ramp production up or down quickly which Eskom's fleet is unable to do. It is for this reason that at times load shedding will be announced very quickly.

“This makes it difficult to plan and is frustrating for consumers. Sudden announcements affect the ability and time to travel to work or home, prepare meals, cold storage, events, bathing and so on.”

Picture by Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA).

While announcing load shedding on such short notice has become a terrible inconvenience for most South Africans, Winkler said Eskom had no other option.

“I’m afraid there is no alternative, as the exact time of power station breakdowns cannot be predicted. Sudden load shedding announcements mean that they have just had one or more unforeseen breakdowns at one of their plants.

“Eskom usually tell us when power supply is tight, meaning that they are operating at full available capacity, and in such a situation just one more problem at any of their plants will result in immediate load shedding.”