Struggling with power supply, South Africa needs to organize recurrent power outages affecting the lives of many

Eskom, South Africa’s national power utility, organizes recurrent power outages as it is struggling with meeting national demand, affecting the country’s economy and the daily lives of many.

Eskom power stations
Eskom power stations | © Eskom

Eskom, South Africa’s national power utility, has announced that it applies stage 4 of load shedding from October 5 to October 7, which means power will be down 7 hours and a half a day during that period.

This is only the latest episode of weeks of power outages South Africans have been exposed to, organized according to the power supply by Eskom, which generates 90 percent of the country’s electricity and is one of the largest sulfur dioxide emitters in the world.

Load shedding schedules go from stage 1, in which power is off less than 2 hours and a half per day, to stage 8 in which power is on only a little more than 12 hours a day.

Eskom applied stage 6 in mid-September while stages 3 or 4 have been mostly the norm in recent weeks.

Breakdowns, power stations taken offline for maintenance, sabotage, replenishment of emergency reserve dams, constraints from diesel suppliers, de-mineralized water contamination after the incorrect valve opened… justifications for power outages vary but supply has been constantly restricted since the beginning of September. A similar situation took place during July.

The country has experienced 1,637 hours of national load shedding, a cumulative 68 days of power cuts in 2022 as of September 19, according to EskomSePush, a mobile app notifying users when and how load shedding takes place to avoid getting “caught in the dark.” This was already 42% more than in 2021.

Load-shedding episodes have constantly increased since 2018, significantly affecting the daily lives of many South Africans and businesses.

Production of electricity in South Africa, mostly coming from coal as it provides 77 percent of the country’s primary energy needs, has been on an overall downward trend since 2008 with demand exceeding supply. Furthermore, the country now generates less than 20,000 Gigawatt-hours per month when it produced close to 22,000 GWh per month back in 2011.

The country generated 3 percent less electricity from Janvier 2022 to July compared to 2021. And these recurrent power outages have many consequences.

South Africa’s gross domestic product declined 0.7 percent in the second quarter of 2022, after having resumed growth for six months. Statistics South Africa explains that floods in the state of KwaZulu-Natal and load shedding “contributed to the decline, weakening an already fragile national economy that had just recovered to pre-pandemic levels.”

The economy has been indeed severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and riots that erupted in 2021, a year during which unemployment reached record-high levels. With load shedding expected to escalate, the economy of South Africa could further suffer.

Eskom may give tips to people when they deal with power outages, such as having a battery-powered torch, full battery on their mobiles, regular data backups, unplugging cables, and having a surge protection device because electrical surges are the greatest cause of damage to equipment. However, its management has been questioned with calls from parliament members for changing the leadership at Eskom which chronically fails at meeting power demand, although CEOs have often been dismissed with not dramatic lasting improvements over the last decade.

Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan announced a change in the board in September but the new chairperson Mpho Makwana decided to maintain the current leadership team and CEO Andre de Ruyter, at least for now.

Minister Gordhan set the target: The infrastructure needs to become operational 75% of the time, up from an estimated 60% now. The new board says it needs two months to find an action plan and launched an assessment of its plants’ performances to find the root causes of the situation.

President Cyril Ramaphosa shortened his trip abroad in September after Queen Elisabeth II’s funeral because of the country’s current power crisis. In July, he said that organizations will have the right to build their own power stations without a license to support their own needs and sell the surplus. Eskom also bought power from abroad to alleviate issues but the situation remains fragile.

Mobile networks are also at risk of load shedding because the batteries of cell phone towers may die. Telecommunication companies need to spend money on fuel to run generators. In the meantime, battery and generator thefts, and burglaries are reportedly on the rise.

AgriSA, an important federation of agricultural organizations in South Africa, also reached out to Eskom on September 22 asking for insight into the outlook for the year, worried about the consequences of load shedding on food security as South Africa enters the summer crop planting season, and farmers use electricity to manage their irrigation systems for instance.

Blackouts raise concerns about preserving the cold chain for food, too.

Some municipalities and local governments have been working on contingency plans to avoid issues in their water and sewage management systems.

And on top of power outages, South Africans may also add water shedding to the mix since concerns about water management arise. The city of Johannesburg has already asked to restrict water consumption as reservoirs are strained. Summer in South Africa starts in December.

Read more about South Africa

Electricity generated and available for distribution, Statistics South Africa, July 2022, PDF

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