A winter of blackouts

2011-06-18 17:04

Although official load shedding has not taken place this winter, unplanned electricity outages will get worse.

Industry experts say this is something we will have to live with for years to come.

One of the major problems is due to expansion, upgrading and maintainance of electricity distribution networks, especially at municipal level.

South Africa currently faces a backlog of nearly R30 billion in the maintenance of the distribution network.

Eskom says power outages at the distribution point are mainly caused by illegal connections, cable theft and multiple connections (where one dwelling supplies other dwellings), which overloads the system.

Mike Rycroft, editor of the industry magazine, Energize, says the average age of SA’s electricity infrastructure is 30 years and most of the equipment has reached the end of its lifespan.

This leads to equipment breaking down more frequently. The yearly addition of new consumers ­also compounds the problem.

“Municipalities have not ­invested in expanding, upgrading and maintaining their ­distribution networks for years, because they were waiting to see what would happen with the establishment of the regional electricity distributors,” says Rycroft.

In 2003 the government created EDI (Electricity Distribution Industry) Holdings to ­establish six wall-to-wall regional electricity distributors that were supposed to take over the electricity distribution function from municipalities.

But EDI Holdings ceased to exist in April, causing uncertainty about how the backlog in maintenance and expansions would be addressed.

Rycroft says: “When the government introduced this programme, most electricity distributors, such as municipalities, stopped investing in their distribution networks. They did not want to put money ­into something that would be taken away from them.” ­

Doug Kuni, managing director of the SA Independent Power Producers Association, says: “The distribution network is falling to pieces. If we do not upgrade and replace the infrastructure it is going to get a whole lot worse.”

And that goes for Eskom’s maintenance too. Kuni says Eskom is running such a tight power generation supply system that it cannot take a plant offline for maintenance now.

Eskom last month warned it was unable to carry out sufficient maintenance on its generation capacity ahead of the winter. This was due to higher electricity demand this summer compared to last year, as well as the loss of 600MW to the national grid when a fire occurred at the Duvha power station in Mpumalanga in February.

“To get a breakdown now is more severe than what it would have been if maintenance had been done,” says an industry expert on condition of anonymity.

“If you’ve been following ­Eskom you’ll see a number of unplanned power outages and breakdowns. He says Government, ­Eskom and municipalities do not seem to grasp the gravity of the situation we are facing. We think we have enough time, but we don’t.”

Eskom spokesperson ­Hilary Joffe says the utility has spent close on R9 billion on maintenance of its distribution networks.

“We are constantly working on improving our ­generation and distribution ­capacity, and ­performance to add new sources to our ­electricity supply,” Joffe says.

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