Load-shedding looms as Eskom struggles to meet demand

2013-03-19 00:00

PRETORIA — South Africa is a hair’s breadth away from load-shedding, as in 2008, when households and industries were regularly left in the dark.

The electricity network is under enormous pressure and power stations are teetering under the high workload.

The plans Eskom has put in place so far to keep the lights on may become unaffordable since national energy regulator Nersa has cut Eskom’s budget back to the bone.

Peter Montalto, an analyst with Nomura International in London, said in an economic research note yesterday that South Africa was closer to load-shedding now than at any stage since the network collapsed in January 2008 and brought the mines to a grinding halt.

Eskom spokesperson Hilary Joffe would not comment yesterday, but did confirm that the electricity giant was very worried about the shortage of reserve electricity.

This means that Eskom is struggling to generate enough electricity to meet the demand.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, speaking at a Nuclear Africa conference in Midrand yesterday, confirmed that there was a real risk of load-shedding. Since January, the supply from Cahora Bassa in Mozambique had been halved to 650 MW following flood damage to transmission lines.

Koeberg’s Unit 1 packed up on February 20 and is likely be back in commission only next month.

Eskom itself has described the performance of other power stations as erratic.

From Eskom’s regular system status bulletin it appears that 17% of its total generating capacity was out of action yesterday as a result of “unplanned maintenance”.

That means the power stations, some of which are fairly old, are working extremely hard, with no time to carry out regular maintenance. So more and more plants are breaking down, and more frequently, just like an old car that is often no longer regularly serviced.

To make matters worse, workers are striking at some of the coal mines that supply vital fuel to Eskom’s power stations.

Joffe said Eskom had 49 days’ coal reserves. “But we are very worried,” she said.

The energy firm does not give figures for specific power stations, but according to Montalto, some of the stations affected by the strike have reserves for only 18 days.

Joffe said Eskom was managing the extremely limited electricity supply by using its two diesel-driven gas turbines, by getting large clients to agree to reduce their demand and through electricity buy-back agreements.

This means that the company pays large industries to turn off their plants so that national demand for electricity does not exceed supply.

Nersa laid into Eskom’s tariff application with its pruning shears and cut the R13 billion the electricity giant requested for demand management to R5 billion.

Nersa’s argument is that Eskom has to operate more efficiently and that it is unacceptable for so many of its power stations to be out of action.

It is this money that Eskom would have used for paying the industries to reduce their demand for electricity. If it cannot manage the demand in this way, and has no other rabbit to pull from the hat, load-shedding is the only other solution.

The pressure on the electricity network can be relieved only if Medupi starts producing electricity. The first of six units was expected to be commissioned by the end of the year, but due to labour unrest little work has been done thus far.

When announcing its decision about Eskom’s tariff application, Nersa said that given the information Eskom provided, no electricity supply from Medupi this year was taken into account.

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