The changing nature of the residential property

August 7th, 2017, Published in Articles: Vector


Mike Rycroft

Although Eskom has kept the promise of no more rolling black-outs, we are still experiencing random isolated area failures due to failures of the distribution network. The focus on managing electricity during rolling blackouts has diverted attention away from the problems with distribution, and now that there is plenty of power available, the problem has again come to the fore.

Of course, one would expect the load on the network to increase during winter, but what was not apparent is that consumption would also have increased as the restrictions were lifted. The power meter has disappeared from our television screens, and if reducing consumption caused inconvenience, increased availability will cause consumption to go back to its level prior to the blackout era

All of this places extra stress on the distribution network, which has not received much attention during the blackout era. The proposed REDS were going to solve the problem with electricity distribution but this was dropped and was replaced by another programme which was supposed to provide funds for upgrading the distribution network. The consequence of the REDS programme was that municipalities stopped spending money on maintaining the distribution networks, with the result that many are in dire need of upgrades.

In 2013, it was estimated that the backlog of refurbishment and upgrades was R35-billion. It is not known what that figure is now. The status of the upgrade programme and provision of funding is unknown. Although most of the larger municipalities have published upgrade programmes, the relevant government departments have been very quiet on this issue lately.

The area I live in has been faced with major problems with power failures over the last two years, mainly due to an ageing and under-capacity substation, and the connected local distribution network. The problem is exacerbated as the area has changed since the substation was built. Residential properties have been turned into businesses and many properties have added cottages and even small houses. In addition, there is a trend for younger families to buy old properties in the area and to renovate, with the additional loads that go with that. It is not only the substation which is ageing and undersized, but also the cables feeding block transformers, the block transformers themselves, the street distribution feeding to the properties, and even the old armoured cable connecting the households to the network. My property has a smart meter installed, but the main circuit breaker and connecting cable are still the original ones.

Modernisation of the area has also brought about additional loads, such as gate motors, alarm systems, pool pumps, individual PCs, modems, routers and a whole plethora of slow cookers, microwave ovens and other kitchen appliances.

Granted, these are all small loads, but add up to a significant amount. The property I own was not wired for these loads, shown by the fact that the socket outlets are on 20 A circuit breakers, and no doubt have 20 A rated cable. I have four socket outlet circuits, of which one is overloading because of the way the house usage has developed, and the remaining three are idling along, carrying the TV and small plug-in lighting loads. The ideal solution would seem to be to redistribute the loads among the circuits. This is easier said than done as the socket outlet circuits are wired on the traditional daisy chain principle, which makes extensions and alterations difficult. The problem of upgrading and refurbishing is not only the substations and switchgear but extends all the way down to the end-user’s socket outlet, in some cases.

Eskom now has surplus power, and will have even more once the new coal-fired stations reach full capacity. It is apparently dropping the call to use less electricity, and may even be moving to encourage users to use more.

From a user’s point of view, the concern is not to use less electricity but to contain or to reduce costs, and in times of excess availability, most users will use as much as can be afforded. The ideal way then to increase consumption or to relax controls on consumption by real-time pricing. In the absence of real-time pricing, and the reality of surplus generation, electricity suppliers should revise the sliding scale charges for users that penalise high consumption.

We have also been told that renewable energy is cheap, and we should therefore have the option to buy green energy from the distributers at lower prices. For instance, when there is over production of wind energy, end-users should be encouraged to use more green energy at a reduced price. The problem, of course, is that the price for renewable energy is fixed and not market-based as in some other countries, so the end-user will not be able to benefit from the lower prices.

Having excess electricity available will not provide any benefit without an improvement in the distribution network, and with the generation problem out of the way, attention should be focused on this area. An unreliable distribution network is not only an inconvenience, but an obstacle to the growth of both large and small industries and authorities need to stop arguing about the future energy programme and concentrate on making distribution of the energy that is available at the moment reliable and cost effective.

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