Eskom narrowly missed formally declaring Stage 7 load shedding on Thursday night. At the peak, it had 6 477 megawatts (MW) of load shedding and a further 447MW of interruptible load supply (cuts to its large industrial customers).
In effect, 7 000MW of demand was removed – meaning Stage 7 load shedding in all but name.
A last-minute decision to defer the start of maintenance at Koeberg unit one meant that it avoided an unprecedented escalation to Stage 7.
Once the Koeberg unit is taken offline for six months, a dependable 900MW of generating capacity is lost (it is currently only producing around 659MW according to an interview on eNCA, as the utility ramps down output ahead of the outage).
Originally, the deferral was only for a day, but Eskom said on Thursday the outage will now begin on Saturday.
There are serious and well-founded concerns that South Africa may experience Stage 7 or Stage 8 load shedding.
And with diesel stocks practically entirely depleted and no more money to buy additional stock until April, this risk is magnified.
Eskom plainly stated on Wednesday that it “has been forced to strictly preserve the remaining diesel for any extreme emergency situations such as multiple, simultaneous trips of generators”. When that stock runs out, all bets are off.
This is unchartered territory …
Under Stage 8, customers can effectively expect three four-hour long power cuts per day, meaning 12 hours of no electricity.
Because the schedules work across a four-day period and blocks may sometimes extend over two days (22:00 to 02:00), there may be worse days and ‘less bad’ days.
There is a big problem, though …
In September, Eskom System Operator GM Isabel Fick revealed that it does not have load shedding levels or schedules beyond Stage 8.
Beyond this point, where more than 8 000MW of load needs to be removed, it plans to issue individual instructions to provinces and municipalities.
“We as a system operator would instruct a number of megawatts to be taken off per province,” Fick said.
“The instruction would be carried out by the various control centres of the municipality and the distribution on a provincial basis.”
Has Eskom even had any preliminary discussions with provinces and large metros about what this would mean?
Can you begin to imagine the utter chaos when Eskom instructs, say, City Power in Johannesburg to remove an additional 100MW of load in addition to the Stage 8 cuts already underway?
Would operators across the city’s seven regions even know where to begin What about smaller towns and cities where there are only a handful of substations?
Infrastructure buckling under the strain
Already, at Stage 6, electricity distribution infrastructure is buckling.
At City Power, there were nearly 1 000 open jobs on Thursday morning. But with four-hour long power cuts rolling through Joburg, this number changes constantly.
Supply must be manually restored, the job is closed, but a new issue crops up when power isn’t returned in a neighbouring suburb after its power cut. That’s if supply is able to be restored at all!
There are many reports on neighbourhood groups of days-long outages in areas across the city.
It is understood that the city’s remote management system for its power grid failed on Wednesday evening. This meant blocks had to be manually restored. In areas of Joburg that Eskom supplies directly, there appear to be similar issues.
Chaos, yes; ethos, good question …
Cape Town residents are shielded from much of this chaos. With the contribution of the Steenbras pumped storage scheme, it is able to operate at lower levels of load shedding than the rest of the country – and traffic officers are actually directed to major intersections to manage traffic flow during peak hours.
In Joburg, we have the self-appointed unemployed directing traffic, complete with high-visibility vests.
So, with this amount of chaos at marginally lower levels of load shedding, why is there simply no plan beyond Stage 8?
Could extending the duration of cuts beyond four hours be an option? (Already in smaller cities, the Stage 8 schedule runs in six-hour blocks).
Perhaps the answer is a combination of six-hour blocks and more blocks scheduled at the same time?
Far too much of our country operates on short termism. No money for diesel? No matter, we find some stock at PetroSA that’ll make the problem go away for a week.
Our president is more worried about party factional battles, an impeachment threat, and signing orders for additional public holidays than Eskom. We can deal with it in January.
The absence of a plan is an emergency.
It must be treated as such.