I am frequently asked whether we can expect any loadshedding this winter. That is a difficult question to answer because interruptions in the electricity supply are not always caused by loadshedding.
Although Brian Molefe, Eskom’s CEO, and Lynne Brown, the minister of public enterprises, have repeatedly stated that loadshedding is unlikely this winter, interruptions in the supply of electricity to consumers might still occur. These interruptions may be caused by equipment failure, cable theft or insufficient generation. Usually it’s very difficult for the consumer to know exactly why the lights went out and even more difficult to know when power will be restored.
According to a recent press release from Eskom, the maintenance programme the power utility embarked upon last year is bearing fruit and the use of expensive-to-run open cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) has been reduced. Furthermore, the utility will consider the feasibility of doing life extension work at four of its oldest coal-fired power stations: Komati, Camden, Hendrina and Arnot in the near future. Thus, instead of mothballing these old stations, they might be kept in service for a few more years and provide an additional 6,8 GW of electrical generation capacity.
Eskom reports that it has a total installed generation capacity of 45 GW. This excludes the 2 GW from renewable sources which the Independent Power Producers (IPP) office says is already operational. Khulu Phasiwe, the power utility’s spokesperson, says that Eskom generates according to demand plus a bit more to provide a reserve margin. Demand is now slightly over 31 GW and generation, excluding the OCGTs, is 34,8 GW.
These figures tend to reassure us that loadshedding is unlikely this winter.
But here’s the rub: although there may be plenty of electricity generation, is the transmission and distribution infrastructure in good enough shape to cope with the additional demands which can be anticipated in winter?
Many of South Africa’s suburbs have experienced power interruptions in recent weeks. The reason for these interruptions is always the same: distribution transformers and/or cabling faults. It seems that many metros and municipalities have not increased the capacity of their electrical distribution equipment in line with the increasing demand caused by an influx of people, additional electrification and the ever-increasing number of shopping malls and housing estates.
In some of Ekurhuleni’s suburbs, for example, there is a growing number of erfs being converted from single housing to multiple housing. The old house is demolished and five or six “town houses” are erected on the site, thereby increasing electricity demand to that site by the same figure. One wonders whether the municipality takes account of the increased strain on its infrastructure (electricity, water and sewage) when it authorises such developments.
The rapid growth of additional dwellings means that more than just maintenance is required: equipment upgrading will be needed. Although many households use energy-efficient lighting, the use of electric heaters, cooking stoves and hot water geysers increases with the number of residents.
So while the Department of Energy promotes the construction of electricity generation by renewable sources and the state-run power utility increases its generation capacity, the municipalities’ distribution infrastructure seems to be the weak link in the supply of reliable electricity to most consumers.
My response therefore to most people who ask me if they should expect loadshedding this winter is no. However, I hasten to add, that does not mean that a reliable, always-on, electrical supply can be guaranteed. Sufficient electricity may be generated but it has to be delivered reliably to the consumer’s premises.
South Africans are best advised not to become complacent regarding the availability of electricity but should make sure that they have access to other forms of energy too. These include liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for cooking and heating, rechargeable lanterns and batteries for torches, and a method of operating their gate during a power outage.
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