No shocks here

2009-03-30 00:00

The recent transformer failure at Pine Street substation that resulted in the power outage for about 22 hours, has put in question the integrity of the electricity infrastructure in the city. We think it is obligatory on the part of the municipality to explain the state of affairs in terms of the electricity infrastructure and the plans ahead to address the challenges that are facing the electricity business.

In 2005 and 2006, the performance of the electricity infrastructure assets came under the spotlight when frequent outages were experienced due to component failures of various network systems. A detailed analysis was conducted by management that culminated in the development of a five-year strategic plan that seeks to address the backlogs and challenges identified. The plan was approved by the council in 2007. Since then a number of projects have been undertaken in pursuance of this plan.


Over the past 15 years there has been an accumulation of backlogs in the maintenance, refurbishment and upgrading of electricity infrastructure. At the end of 2006, the backlogs profile was as follows:

• Replacement of 16 transformers and switchgears (15 MVA to 45 MVA). Total cost R203 million.

• Refurbishment and upgrading of transmission lines. R42 million.

• Reinforcement of network. R52 million.

• Replacement of unsafe equipment. R141 million.

• New substation (Crossways). R35 million.


The five-year plan was developed to clear the backlogs and a significant amount has since been spent on the programme. Five transformers (2x30 MVA and 3x40 MVA) have been ordered. One of the transmission lines to the Crossways substation has been upgraded. The second line feeding Hilton will be upgraded in the next financial year. The plan is to build another substation that will be fed from a different infeed point from Eskom.

The Northdale substation will be upgraded in 2009, as soon as the new transformers arrive. In the meantime, the transformers in Northdale have been refurbished to reduce the risk of failure.

The municipality is replacing unsafe equipment. A significant amount of money has already been spent on addressing this problem and more funding will be made available in the next budget.


The municipality is aware of three critical primary substations which are operating at 50% risk. Contingency measures are in place to deal with the risk. These are the Pine Street, Woodburn and Mkondeni substations. The Pine Street substation is operating with one transformer after the failure of the other standby transformers on March 24. While the faulty transformer is being repaired, the substation is operating at 50% risk. Orders to replace the transformers were placed 18 months ago and delivery was expected in November 2008. Delivery is now expected by early May. In the meantime, all other assets within the substation, including the switchgears, the protection system, buss bars, circuit breakers and isolators, have been upgraded and replaced. When the two transformers are installed at the Pine Street substation, it will be as good as new.

The Mkondeni substation is also operating with one transformer after the standby transformer failed and is awaiting delivery of the replacement transformer by the end of this year. The transformer for Mkodeni substation was ordered six months ago, with two transformers for the Northdale substation. Should the working transformer at Mkondeni fail, a contingency plan is in place which entails taking one standby transformer from the Northdale substation. These two substations have similar types of transformers, which can be used interchangeably. Load will also be transferred to other circuits.

The Woodburn substation has 2x15 MVA working transformers and we are currently experiencing a load of 19 MVA. If one transformer fails, the load can be transferred to Riverside, Archbell and Prince Alfred substations. The transformers from the Pine Street substation will act as standby transformers at Woodburn when the new transformers come. New transformers for Woodburn will be purchased in the later phase of the programme.

Although operating at risk at these substations, the municipality is confident of the integrity of its primary substations. The maintenance regimes of the primary substations are up to date after a huge investment by the municipality in 2007/08 and the current financial year.

The municipality has also managed to replace a number of its low and medium-voltage mini-substations over the past two years. With the work done on the electricity infrastructure in the past two years, the risk of failure has been significantly reduced.

The installed capacity of our network increased from 300 MVA to 410 MVA with the completion of the third infeed project in the 2007/08 financial year. The project included the upgrading of 7,5 kilometres of 132 kV power lines from the Riverside substation to Retief Street substation, and the introduction of another 132 kV power line from the Prince Alfred Street substation to Riverside, with a direct link to the Retief substation. This allowed the shifting of a 100 MVA load from the Mersey substation (first infeed from Eskom) to the Msunduzi substation (second infeed from Eskom), increasing the municipality’s ability to draw energy from Eskom.

Like any other electricity distribution authority in the country, the municipality is facing the challenges of loss of competent technical staff, theft of cables and wires, and illegal connections.

Since 2006, the council has worked hard to improve the integrity of the electricity infrastructure, despite the competing needs to address the imbalances of the past. This municipality has embarked successfully on electrification programmes that have seen the connection of 1 567 poor households to the electricity grid in 2008/09 alone in the Greater Edendale area. A lot of investment has been earmarked for the replacement of old streetlight components with energy-efficient components, without compromising on the level of illumination.

We believe, with the successful implementation of the five-year strategic plan, Pietermaritzburg’s electricity infrastructure will rate as one of the best in the country. The public can assist by playing a significant role in curbing theft and tampering of electricity assets, and using energy sparingly, as this will lengthen the life span of our assets.

• Phil Mashoko is the deputy municipal manager: infrastructure services at the Msunduzi Municipality.

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