Load shedding. Power cuts. Rolling blackouts.
Call them what you will, they’re a reality and Eskom has warned they’re here to stay for most of 2015.
Load shedding is about Eskom balancing the power scales; it needs to be able to supply enough electricity to meet the country’s demands. When supply matches demand, everything is fine. But when the country needs more power than Eskom can generate, either because of an increase in demand or a drop in supply, then we’re in trouble.
If the country’s demand outstrips the amount of electricity that Eskom can supply, power stations start taking some serious strain and the system can be badly damaged. That, in turn, can lead to a national blackout – a truly worst case scenario.
Stage 1 is the least disruptive of the schedules. Your area is likely to be hit by 2.5-hour blackouts once every second day**, Monday to Saturday between 05:30 and 21:00. Load shedding won’t take place overnight or on Sundays.
**If you live in an Eskom-supplied area in Johannesburg, you’ll be in for a 4-hour cut once every 4 days.
Stage 2 involves double the amount of load shedding planned in Stage 1. Your area is likely to be hit by 2.5-hour blackouts once a day, Monday to Saturday between 05:30 and 21:00. Load shedding won’t take place overnight or on Sundays.
Stage 3 involves double the amount of load shedding planned in Stage 2. Your area is likely to be hit by 2.5-hour blackouts up to three times a day. The load shedding will take place 24 hours per day and will also happen on Sundays.
Stage 4 is as bad as it gets in terms of load shedding. Eskom starts additional, unscheduled power cuts wherever it needs to and outside of its schedules. This means your area can be hit by blackouts at any time without any warning. The country hasn’t reached this stage since 2008.
Stage 4 load shedding is the final option for Eskom to prevent a national blackout.
Power cuts are inconvenient and frustrating but compared to the worst case scenario that load shedding is designed to prevent, the rolling blackouts that we have to contend with are child’s play. If load shedding fails to protect the national power grid, South Africa runs the risk of a complete national blackout. Eskom says the chances of this actually happening are exceptionally remote, but they are there.
Plainly put, power cuts are a form of short-term pain that needs to be endured to prevent long-term disaster. The utility has been very careful so far to prevent the country from reaching this point of no return; load shedding is one of the tools being used to protect South Africa from a national blackout.
If the national power grid were to collapse it could take at least one week – and as many as three – to get it back up and running, meaning that South Africans could be without power for a prolonged period of time. Other countries are able to rely on help from neighbouring nations and tap into their electricity systems in an emergency, but South Africa doesn’t have that option because its neighbours aren’t strong power providers. We import very little of our electricity.
Eskom would have to restart its own power stations from scratch. This process is called a “black start” – when a power station can’t rely on an external electricity supply to get itself back up and running. Essentially it has to pull itself up by its own bootstraps. But one of the problems is that not all power stations in South Africa are equipped for a black start.
In some cases a small in-house generator at a power station (usually diesel-operated) can be used to start larger generators, which can in turn get the station’s main generators back online. Once one station is back up and running, it can help provide the jump start that others need. Gradually, these power stations can be linked to form an interconnected system. But this process would take time, lots of time, because each island of power created by a black start would need to be synchronized and reconnected. In the meantime, South Africa would be in the dark.
If a complete national blackout were to hit, it would have severe consequences. At the moment, when load shedding is implemented, facilities like hospitals, train networks and airports are spared; but in the worst case scenario Eskom would not have this option. Within hours or days, most UPS systems and backup generators would run out of juice.
Hospitals would close, trains would not run and airports would shut down. Police and fire stations would be unable to function properly. Banks would be unable to operate. Cell phone towers would run out of power within hours so even if you had a charged handset, it’s unlikely that you’d be able to make calls. After a while, some water reservoirs would start running dry because there would be no power to pump water into them. Sewage systems would be hit as well; fuel pipelines (and eventually your car’s tank) would run dry.
Sounds like an almost doomsday-like scenario, doesn’t it? That’s why Eskom is so dogged in implementing load shedding where necessary. So the next time you’re hit by a rolling blackout, it’s as well to remember that the alternative could be far, far worse.
The cost of appliances and how much electricity they use on a monthly basis, according to Eskom Energy calculator
With the possibility of load shedding for the next few months, some South Africans have started asking questions about what it would take to get off the grid completely. Meaning: renewable energy, not relying on Eskom and always having electricity. This can be quite costly. Leon Gouws from Kestrel Renewable Energy says getting off the grid often means a combination of wind, solar and a battery bank.
There is one South African however who has been living off the grid for past seven years. Inus Dreckmeyr and his family live completely ‘off grid’. All the electricity he needs is generated on site and he has never had a power cut.
First, you have to make sure you know who your power provider is. Do you get your electricity straight from Eskom or does it come via your municipality? Once you know where your power comes from, you can check the correct load shedding schedules.
Use EWN’s interactive map to work out when your area will be affected.
Telephone: 0860 103 089
Use EWN’s interactive schedule to work out when your area will be affected.
Telephone: 012 358 9999
Telephone: 0860 543 000
Telephone: 086 003 7566
TRUTH: While switching your geyser off and on again won’t save power overall, it will help Eskom reduce demand during crucial periods. This helps Eskom better manage supply, meaning there’s less chance of load shedding being implemented.
To reheat the water to its set temperature, a geyser uses no more power than if it had remained switched on.
TRUTH: A geyser blanket does help reduce heat loss and therefore can lead to small power savings, but you still need to switch off your geyser during peak times in order to help reduce demand.
TRUTH: Switching on a light or an appliance on can lead to a minor surge in power usage, but this is vastly smaller than the amount of electricity needed to keep it on when it’s not being used.
TRUTH: It takes less energy to warm up a cold room or cool down a hot one, than leaving your heater or air conditioner on for extended periods. Rather dress warmly or use a hot water bottle than keep a heater on for extended periods.
TRUTH: This won’t cool your room any quicker, it will just use more power because the air conditioner will remain on for longer. The same goes for using an air conditioner to heat a room. Rather keep room temperatures between 18° and 23°.
TRUTH: Even when it’s in stanby mode, an electrical appliance still draws power. Rather switch it off completely or unplug it from the wall.
Stephen Grootes says the roots of our current electricity crisis, like so much else, lie in our history.
The roots of our current electricity crisis, like so much else, lie in our history, and the transition from the Apartheid state to democracy.
In the 1980’s Eskom had built generating capacity to the point where it simply had too much power. As a result, the apartheid government urged it to negotiate agreements with mining firms who could use that power. This led to the construction of aluminium smelters which are huge users of electricity. Thus, when the ANC took over government in 1994, the situation seemed relatively stable, there was plenty of power, and large users were using the excess (even if they were paying quite low prices for it).
Then, in around 1997, the Energy Ministry decided to plot the way forward, it was necessary to plan for the future. In a White Paper produced in 1998, the ministry pointed out quite correctly as it turned out, that if no new capacity was built, the country would run out of power in 2007:
The maximum demand in 1997 was about 28 330 MW. Eskom’slatest Integrated Electricity Plan forecasts for an assumed demand growth of 4,2% thatEskom’s present generation capacity surplus will be fully utilised by about 2007. Timely steps will have to be taken to ensure that demand does not exceed available supply capacity andthat appropriate strategies, including those with long lead times, are implemented in time.
Considering that the first load shedding happened in January 2008, Eskom’s prediction turned out to be exactly on the money. The question of course, is why was nothing done.
At the time, it was decided that the private sector should be introduced, and build power stations which would produce electricity that consumers would pay for through the grid (at the time, many other countries were also privatising their electricity sectors). However, the terms that were offered to the private sector were not very appealing. This meant that no serious players offered bids to produce power.
It seems it took quite some time for anyone to realise this. Eskom itself knew that new power stations needed to be built, and built soon, because of the long lead-times involved. It also appears there is no proof that Eskom was in any way wrong here. In fact it appears it was the Cabinet at the time, led by Thabo Mbeki as President, with Alec Erwin as Public Enterprises Minister, who sat by and did nothing.
Mbeki himself has confirmed this, saying in 2008 that:
When Eskom said to the government: 'We think we must invest more in terms of electricity generation', we said no, but all you will be doing is just to build excess capacity," he said in a speech.
"We said not now, later. We were wrong. Eskom was right. We were wrong."
However, because of the political situation at the time, nothing was done to punish or hold accountable in any way, those who did ignore Eskom and “were wrong”.
It’s important to remember the political context of January and February 2008. Jacob Zuma had just beaten Mbeki to become leader of the ANC at Polokwane.
Immediately after Zuma became leader the power cuts started. The country was in uproar over the corruption charges against Zuma.
Then, in the middle of all of this, came the xenophobic attacks, which saw dozens of foreign nationals being killed in Alexandra and other parts of the country.
And after that, in September, came the ruling of Judge Chris Nicolson that corruption charges against Zuma should be “struck off the roll” and his finding that Mbeki had played a role in the prosecution of Zuma. As a direct result of that, Mbeki was recalled from office, and agreed to step down.
Because of all of this, load-shedding fell almost into the background of our politics, it was present, but as long as the lights were kept on, because of the other political activity (an election was still on the horizon in 2009) that was going on at the time.
Within Eskom, there was other turmoil. Jacob Maroga was forced to resign as chief executive after a huge fight with then Eskom Chair Bobby Godsell. At one point parts of the ANC were supporting Godsell, and others were supporting Maroga. It got a little ugly, and it would be very hard to claim that politics has not played a role in delaying the building of power stations here.
In the meantime, Eskom’s top brass had clearly decided they could keep the lights on, by reducing the amount of maintenance they did on the power stations. They drove them harder and harder.
Like any car, you can drive it in the red, and do no maintenance, and it will perform for quite a while. But you would never want to buy a car that has been driven like that. That is the situation our power stations are in now. They’ve been driven hard, and are now not performing as well as they should.
It’s been claimed the current maintenance being conducted on those power stations was held off until after the May elections. It is a hard claim to prove, but is likely to be believed by many people.
What was supposed to prevent all of this was the construction of the Medupi and Khusile power stations. They are both massive operations, however their construction has been delayed by several years. This has been through a combination of bad planning, and, it seems, difficulties in keeping workers on the site.
Led by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, many of those workers went on strike after strike. While those disputes appear to have been resolved for the moment, Eskom has confirmed that most of those workers did take their Christmas holidays.
In conclusion, the load-shedding we are suffering through is due to a combination of bad planning, the refusal by the Mbeki administration to listen to Eskom, and poor political management.
Read more: the 1998 White Paper.
More from the same author on Eskom.
Stephen Grootes is host of the Midday Report on 702 and CapeTalk, and the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes