For some years, many South Africans have been living with what’s usually termed ‘load-shedding’, something that is relatively uncommon in most western nations. Put simply, when the demand for electricity outstrips the available supply, parts of the grid are switched off in a planned manner to avoid a countrywide blackout.
Essentially, the national electricity generator Eskom rotates these interruptions in supply between different geographical areas, helping share the burden and inconvenience between its many customers. Such shortfalls in electricity supply can unbalance the network, potentially causing it to collapse – planned load-shedding is a way to keep the system stable. Local municipalities also sometimes conduct load shedding to meet their own needs and schedule.
There are different stages of load shedding; for example, Stage 1 allows for up to 1 GW to be removed from the grid, resulting in power cuts of varying duration and frequency. Stage 2 allows for 2 GW, and so on. The stage adopted reflects the severity of the prevailing situation.
As can be imagined, these interruptions impact on nearly every facet of normal daily life. Trains may not run, traffic control systems stop working, mobile phones won’t always work, streetlights go out, cold stores defrost, water supply may fail – the list is endless. Hit particularly hard are the large swathes of ‘informal’ housing, often referred to as townships or shanty towns, usually on the outskirts of major cities such as Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Large numbers of people live in townships. For example, major townships around Cape Town include Khayelitsha (nearly 400,000 residents), Philippi (over 200,000), Delft (over 150,000), Guguletu (around 100,000), Mfuleni (over 50,000), and Mitchells Plain (over 310,000). Residents of these underdeveloped urban areas already suffer a host of social problems, and often, do not even own the land on which their houses are sited, most of which have been built in an ‘unregulated’ manner. There is often a general lack of access to basic services such as sewerage, electricity, roads, and clean water. And when the electricity goes off, life becomes even more intolerable.
Load shedding has had a major impact on township businesses, with a reported two thirds being forced to cut jobs. Around the same percentage are unable to operate during power outages, with many facing closure if these continue for much longer. Load shedding inevitably increases business operating costs, lowers revenue, and reduces margins.
How long has South Africa been experiencing load-shedding? It started in a small way in 2007 but has since become more persistent and prolonged as electricity supply has progressively fallen behind demand. In 2014, the load shedding total was only 121 hours, but by 2022, it had reached 3773 hours.
Some sources predict that 2023 will be the worst yet, with between 200 and 250 days of load shedding.
Ironically, South Africa previously exported electricity to some of its neighbours; a situation that has changed dramatically with the passing years.
Some of the ICSC team were able to witness first-hand the effects of load shedding. We recently completed a very successful event, the 2nd ICSC Energy Transition Workshop, held in Cape Town. As part of our travels, we saw both large townships and small towns in almost complete darkness. The only light was the occasional glimmer from an oil lamp or candle placed in a window. When the power goes out, life stops abruptly. We also passed through a more modern developed community, again in almost total darkness. Here, a few businesses such as shops or restaurants remained open, presumably lit dimly by their own small generators.
How did the country get into this situation and what’s the answer to the ongoing electricity shortage?
The first part is relatively simple to answer. Eskom has received a lot of criticism for the current spate of problems, but these have not all been of its own making. Despite numerous warnings that there would be electricity shortages and that the power sector needed to be restructured and investment made in new infrastructure, previous governments apparently did not heed the advice, and failed to tackle the impending problem.
Instead, it was decided that one way to meet the growing electricity demand was to run existing coal-fired power plants (some of which were nearing the end of their planned life) at or beyond their normal rated capacity. As a colleague from Eskom said, this was ‘like driving your car with the rev counter permanently in the red zone’. This move meant that inevitably, plant systems wore out more quickly, leading increasingly to failures and unplanned outages. A lack of regular preventative maintenance exacerbated the situation – the need to keep plants operating round the clock meant that regular servicing was often impossible.
Most of these older plants still form the backbone of the Eskom fleet and are still operating although many are scheduled for retirement by 2035. If this happens, only six coal-fired plants will be left online: Medupi, Matimba, Kusile, Kendal, Lethabo and Majuba.
One option suggested to ease the current load shedding would be to defer some plant closures. Eskom’s recently retired Chief Operating Officer Jan Oberholzer gave a keynote address at the ICSC Energy Transition Workshop. His suggestion was to look at some of the power plants nearing their end-of-life, and via targeted investment, add an additional year or so of operation. Although not an ideal solution, it could nevertheless help address the current problem as part of a package of measures.
What lies ahead?
It seems likely that 2023 will continue to be a difficult year in terms of load shedding, although it is hoped that it will reduce by early 2024 – ongoing repairs at two of Eskom’s biggest and newest coal-fired plants (Kusile and Medupi) should be completed by then, bringing much needed capacity to the country’s grid. A team from the ICSC visited Kusile a few years ago. We met a range of people and were impressed with their depth of knowledge and sheer determination to get this enormous plant fully operational as quickly as possible. Like everyone else in South Africa, load shedding directly impacts on their lives and those of their families.
This spirit of determination was also evident during the recent workshop in Cape Town. We spoke with a wide cross section of Eskom employees from many different parts of the company and in all cases, it was clear that they were determined to do all they could to help resolve Eskom’s current problems.
Discussions on how to tackle the country’s electricity woes continue at the highest level, and various possible routes forward are being considered. Alongside coal, new projects based on renewables, natural gas and nuclear power are possibilities. These are unlikely to provide a quick fix, but hopefully, the elimination of load shedding will be the end result.
When it comes to load shedding, South Africa is not alone – for example, Pakistan and Bangladesh have also been in a similar situation, although not on the same scale. Whatever the outcome, coal power will continue to play an important role in South Africa’s economic development for some considerable time, ideally as part of a balanced portfolio of energy sources tailored to the country’s present and future needs.