SA 'really close to the edge' as Eskom forced to operate without 40% of capacity

As Eskom implemented stage 6 load shedding for the first time on Monday evening, energy analyst Chris Yelland – speaking to Fin24 from a dark house and with an almost-flat cellphone battery – did not mince his words.

South Africa was "really close to the edge", but the public generally has a lack of understanding about the seriousness of the electricity crisis, he said.

"Believe me, stage 6 load shedding is bad."

The struggling power utility ordered stage 6 rotational power cuts on Monday evening as it continued to battle capacity constraints caused by flooding and unplanned outages, including the failure of a power supply line feeding electricity conveyor belts feeding coal to silos at Medupi power station.

Stage 6 load shedding – which allows for up to 6 000 MW to be shed from the national grid – ended at 10pm on Monday, when Eskom reverted to stage 4 cuts. These cuts are expected to continue until 11pm on Tuesday.

Unplanned breakdowns, Eskom said in a morning update, were at 15 200 MW - more than a third of the utility's nominal capacity. "We remind customers that load shedding at stage 4 is no cause for alarm as the system is being effectively controlled. Load shedding is a responsible act and highly controlled process, implemented to protect the country from a national blackout," said Eskom. 

Low demand, high outages 

"It is all very well to speak about [equipment] breakdowns, but demand for electricity right now is not very high, and yet we are at stage 6," said Yelland on Monday evening.

"It is not the demand that is the problem. It is the supply," he said.

Instituting stage 6 load shedding on Monday night means that Eskom was without at least 40% of its generating capacity.

Explaining this calculation, Yelland said 6 000 MW was allowed for planned maintenance, while at least 14 000 MW had been lost to unplanned breakdowns. With a generating capacity of 45 000 MW, this means a loss of 20 000 MW is significant, he said.

Yelland said that, on the whole, updates provided by the power utility do not provide consumers or analysts with enough insight, saying Eskom had been "very thin on detail about what is actually going on".

"We need much more detail," he said, criticising what he called a "lack of transparency".

"We don't know how close we are to the edge at any time. We tend to think when there is no load shedding that all is well. But we are really close to the edge.

"The problem is the total lack of transparency at Eskom as to what is really going on. But none of us know how close we are because Eskom does not make this info available."

Weekly system status reports are released in arrears, he noted. "There are many countries in the world who give out this info once an hour. Two even give out this info once every 15 minutes, in real time. Not just the whole power system, but every generator," he told Fin24.

This level of detail would allow South Africans – particularly businesses – to better understand the system status but also to plan better for load shedding, minimising economic and other damage, he argued.

Eskom typically sends daily power alerts during high-risk periods and posts load shedding updates on its Twitter account. A typical alert includes the stage of load shedding, the date and time of implementation.

Municipalities, meanwhile, publish their own load shedding schedules. On Monday evening, some municipalities initially did not have stage 6 schedules available on their websites.

Asked why there had been such a rapid shift to stage 6 load shedding – when in November, Eskom chair Jabu Mabuza had said there were at that stage no plans to load shed until March 2020 – Eskom spokesperson Dikatso Mothae said unexpected flooding was a major factor.

Eskom said on Monday that flooding at both the Kriel mine in Mpumalanga and the Kriel power station meant no coal deliveries could take place via conveyor belt, while abnormally high rain at Camden power station – also in Mpumalanga – had led to flooding that impacted critical infrastructure. This has put extra strain on an power system that was already short of capacity due to other unplanned breakdowns.

At Medupi, meanwhile, the power supply to incline conveyors feeding coal to silos failed - causing coal-feeding problems and the loss of a number of generating units. On Tuesday morning Eskom said that "progress has been made with coal handling at Medupi Power Station".

Mothae said the sudden, additional problems had compounded issues that the power utility had "broadly" referred to in the past. Likening aging plants to an old car that had not been serviced as regularly as it should, Mothae said poorly maintained infrastructure had been placed under additional strain.

Mothae said load shedding could be expected for the rest of the week. Demands on the grid would likely lessen from next week, as businesses began closing, she added.

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