Load shedding remains a major obstacle in South Africa

Posted On Friday, 16 January 2015 09:36 Published by
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With the increase in electricity demand, load shedding remains a reality for the near future for South Africa, says power utility Eskom.


Tshediso Matona

Eskom CEO Tshediso Matona said the country had just about exhausted the electricity reserve margin and any slight pressure might trigger power cuts. Matona spent most of his weekly meeting with board members and business stakeholders briefing them on what to expect in terms of electricity supply.

"The system will remain tight in summer. Risks of extreme weather related outages such as wet coal, unplanned outage extensions and unavailability of primary energy may worsen the situation. Therefore, the country needs to be prepared for load shedding," he said.

Referring to load shedding as "painful", Matona said it was a necessary decision to protect the electricity power system from total blackout.

"A total blackout would have significant consequences on the South African economy," he said. Last Friday, the utility again started stage one load shedding in some areas of the country as a result of high demand and urgent maintenance being performed at some power stations.

In addition to the wet weather in some parts of the country, most businesses have also started operating this week after the holidays and inland schools have reopened. This has put more pressure on the grid. Ageing infrastructure has been an issue for Eskom. Matona said maintenance was a big challenge as the company had not stayed faithful to its "maintenance religion".

He said the "keeping the lights on" philosophy has created a culture whereby proactive maintenance has become less important. "Our equipment has become so unreliable and risk of a breakdown is a constant reality," he said, adding that it would take years to reverse the problem.

He said some of their running plants have partial load losses due to parts being worn out and they have no time window to replace or fix them. But the situation can no longer continue like this.

"Now we have arrived at a point that does not allow us to ignore the health of our plants. Our reserve margin is so thin that every incident creates a major system issue and could have safety implications for the plants," said Matona.

New generation capacity

Matona said the massive usage of diesel to keep the lights on helps to bridge the problem somewhat. He warned though that this cannot entirely resolve the problem and "shortage of capacity for the coming three years appears to be unavoidable".

The answer, Matona said, lies in new generation capacity. "New generating capacity and other levers are needed in order to ease the pressure on the system," said Matona.

But the use of diesel doesn't come cheaply and it has put Eskom's finances under strain. "On the financial side, the liquidity situation is under pressure - not just because of diesel but also lower sales, building new capacity and the lack of cost–effective tariffs," said Matona.

Eskom has also attributed the lack of maintenance of their plants to the shortage of skills such as artisans. Training and skills development, in conjunction with the higher education sector, was thus paramount at Eskom. Matona, who has been with the company for three months now, said he takes comfort in the fact that he understands more deeply the nature of the problem and what is required to deal with it.

"We know what the problem is and we know what solution is required to get out of the situation that we find ourselves in as Eskom and as a country." Matona said Eskom will strive to keep the country clued up about developments at all times. He urged South Africans to also play their part and turn off all unused appliances.

"It remains important for all customers to maintain or achieve the 10% electricity savings especially in the commercial, industrial and residential sectors." Meanwhile, Eskom has set itself a new February deadline to start synchronising one of the six units from the Medupi power station to the national grid.

However, a lot of testing, which is expected to the completed by winter, will still take place to add to the capacity. The utility missed its December deadline to bring one unit from the newly built Limpopo station on line.

"We will then go through a test phase during which the unit will be contributing power to the grid, but it won't be on a consistent basis. That's the purpose of the next couple of months," said Eskom spokesperson Andrew Etzinger. After the tests, Etzinger said the unit will be optimised and added to the national grid, which may help in terms of current capacity.

Chairperson of the Eskom Board Zola Tsotsi was confident that the country would weather the storm. He said the utility has been humbled by government's response to the challenges. He assured the public that Eskom remains committed to supplying power to the public.

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