Is Eskom choosing when and when not to keep the lights on in South Africa?
While many South Africans think this is a real possibility, energy experts in the country say there isn’t any truth behind it at all.
Despite South Africans being blessed with endless electricity supply during the Christmas period and big events such as the Rugby World Cup or the Zulu Kings funeral, the power utility isn’t selectively choosing when to supply electricity, say energy experts.
“Load shedding is an emergency response to a supply and demand imbalance on the system. It is not something that happens arbitrarily,” said energy expert Lungile Mashele.
“Load shedding is dependent on numerous variables such as weather, demand, supply, plant performance, maintenance etc.
“The times when Eskom suspends load shedding. The Rugby World Cup Final in 2019 or the Zulu King’s funeral, they burnt a lot of diesel.”
Professor Hartmut Winkler, an energy analyst at the University of Johannesburg, agreed with Mashele.
“The reason that there is no load shedding during the December holiday period is simply because electricity demand is then substantially lower than at other times of the year,” said Winkler.
“Major industrial users are then much less active, and high temperatures mean much lower heating needs – a key reason why winter electricity demand is higher.
“Eskom only has relatively limited control over its electricity generating capacity. It can, for example, choose to slightly postpone scheduled maintenance work at one of its power plants, which would yield a minor short-term increase in electricity generation.
“It would however be extremely short-sighted to tamper too much with the maintenance schedule, as the long-term result would be an even worse performing power plant fleet.
“Some people indeed claim that such tactics were adopted about eight years ago, and that this is why the present power crisis is so severe.
“I believe that when Eskom implements specific stages load shedding then their decision is rational and practically enforced, and that they know very well that deviating from this principle is not in their long-term interest.”
Energy experts also are confident that load shedding won’t be as bad in 2024 as it was this year.
“As long as we do not have a major mishap at one of the big power stations, such as the flue duct collapse at Kusile in October 2022, which amounted to an extra 2 stages of load shedding for the subsequent 12 months, load shedding should not be worse in 2024 compared to what we experienced in 2023,” said Winkler.
“The severity and pattern of load shedding in 2024 should then be similar to what was witnessed in the second half of 2023.
“Unfortunately one can never discount the possibility of another major technical disaster – the Eskom plants are all ageing and have been driven hard, and the exact timing of breakdowns is generally not predictable.
“If another major calamitous failure were to happen then more intense load shedding would follow, a bit like during the worst months in 2023, with Stage 8 not out of the question.”
Mashele said South Africans can expect lower stages of load shedding in 2024.
“Load shedding will not be as severe in 2024. The three units at Kusile have been returned to service as well as unit 1 at Koeberg is back from a long outage. We will however have load shedding but at lower stages.
“The 3 units at Kusile have given us an additional 2400MW, that is substantial and alleviates at least 2 stages of load shedding.”
Mashele also has firm belief that South Africa can recover from its energy crisis provided there is political will.
“South Africa will recover from this crisis provided the is political will. We have the energy sources and technology in South Africa to end this.”
Winkler says South Africa’s energy crisis has improved substantially since the restoration of three of Kusile’s six units.
“The fact that three of Kusile’s six units were recently repaired indeed improved electricity supply substantially.”
“A fully operational Kusile would make an even bigger difference to the South African electricity supply.”
“If all six Kusile units were working that would equate to 4 less stages of load shedding compared to long periods in 2023 when only one of the six units was functioning.”
“Note that at this point in time Kusile is still 2 units short: as long as there are no further delays (and construction of Kusile has seen very long delays), these two units will become operational early next year and in early 2025 respectively.”
He said a total recovery from its energy crisis is possible for South Africa too.
“A recovery is possible, but it will require several years and the informed crafting, adoption and consistent implementation of a sensible long-term electricity plan.”
“Unfortunately I do not yet see such a sensible plan coming to fruition any time soon. There are clear signs of contestation over the electricity mix, and I expect huge debates over this in the run-up to the national election.”
“For example, we just witnessed a surprise pre-Christmas announcement of a planned new nuclear build.”
“This was clearly aimed to forestall debate on the sensibility, cost and construction timeframe of this expensive power option, even though the new Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity has still not been released for mandatory public participation.”
“Electricity policy is being driven by the self-interest of lobby groups even when these do not align with the public benefit.”