South Africa plunged into open-ended power crisis

South Africans demonstrate over power outages

Supporters of Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) party march in Johannesburg on February 28, 2020, during a protest against the embattled South African power utility Eskom. 

Photo credit: AFP

South Africa’s electricity crisis has moved to its most severe stage yet, the national grid nearing total collapse and the power utility Eskom urging citizens, businesses and municipalities to cut usage

Serial failures, even on recently commissioned power units, and planned outages for maintenance sometimes lead to several outages a day.

Previous outages – at lower levels than the ‘Stage 6 rolling blackouts’ declared Sunday morning as five more coal-fired power units failed overnight – were estimated to cost the country over $57 million daily.

The impact on businesses is severe and on households highly disruptive, with all parts of the economy constrained, including education, hit hard.

Eskom’s executives, saying some level of load-shedding would be in place likely for the rest of 2022, attempted to calm rising fears that the utility was headed for complete failure.

The latest extension of blackouts had been forced by a fuel shortage in the strained system’s emergency back-up diesel turbines, South Africans were told, with media asking related questions in what amounted to a nationally televised ‘Zoom session’.

The problem would take days to rectify as replenishing diesel was by road truck.

Other backup systems had been exhausted, though such systems require about a day to recharge.

It was possible that the current punishing schedule of outages might be improved by one stage by late Sunday if repairs were made by then, “but there are no promises being made”.

With load-shedding becoming no longer an intermittent inconvenience but a daily and apparently permanent reality for at least another two years, Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter and his executive team, appointed three years ago, have been urged to “sort out” the firm’s many problems.

Even at South Africa’s usually reliable nuclear power plant at Koeberg, near Cape Town, there has been unexpected trouble with equipment controlling one of its two units, which were shut down, though with no danger to the reactor itself.

Eskom has consequently been reduced to pleading with customers to cut their consumption in order to protect the grid from complete collapse.

Eskom, which supplies about 95 percent of South Africa's electricity and over 40 percent of Africa's, has had decades of poor management, inadequate future planning and insufficient maintenance of its existing, mainly coal-fired plants.

Biggest and costliest

South Africa's installed capacity was 51.6GWe as of 2020, of which coal-fired stations accounted for about 38GWe, most of which are aged and requiring much maintenance.

But South Africa also has two of the biggest and costliest coal-fired plants in the world, newly built in Medupi and Kusile. They are also among the most controversial, with enormous cost overruns, extended construction times and costly, post-construction ‘re-engineering’ of key elements in multiple power-producing units.

The latest cuts have been met with renewed calls for a full replacement of the top executive and management teams at Eskom, but such changes were made previously and the situation has only deteriorated since, energy experts point out.

South Africa needs around 32-33GW at peak times in winter to operate without outages, and is supposed to have around 32GW of available capacity at any time, with around 7GW under planned maintenance and the rest taken up by unplanned outages.

With repair teams working 24 hours a day, Eskom is turning to any suppliers there may be. In due course, ordinary citizens will be allowed to feed back rooftop PV and other self-generated electricity into the grid.

As of Monday, September 19, major industrial entities, such as wood pulp and paper producer SAPPI and oil-from-coal maker SASOL, will be able to sell back to the grid any excess energy their co-generational systems may have.

With around 8GW of renewable energy power production – mostly PV, some with storage, and wind – coming online or being set up, South Africa’s energy crisis is expected to begin easing about two years out.

In the latest bid window for independent power producers, another 16GW has been allocated, much to solar with storage.

Together, the extra 24GW should sort out the supply-side constraints on the South African electrical grid, though there are other problems looming, including a very old and under-maintained distribution network.

Meanwhile, Eskom will be staggering from crisis to crisis, the intermittent power it supplies gradually degrading everything that relies on electricity, from computer systems and TVs to the electrical supply grid itself.