Bracing for more blackouts

2020-01-20 10:03

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Despite reports that the Eskom grid is stabilising, energy experts have warned that South Africans should prepare themselves for the worst, with regular rolling black-outs and stage 6 load-shedding as a result of continuing problems at the power utility.

This as municipalities are being told to make sure they have plans in place for Stage 8 load-shedding, in the event of the low likelihood that this may be required.

Stage 8 has been provided for in the Msunduzi load-shedding schedule and means four lots of outages of two hours each per day.

But Msunduzi Municipality’s acting general manager for infrastructure services Brenden Sivparsad has warned that while they have been reassured by Eskom that stage 8 load-shedding was unlikely, it would be disastrous for the municipality and city residents. Sivparsad said this was not a unique problem to Msunduzi and that most municipalities would be affected in the same way. Black-outs for extended periods, he said, would trigger most municipal services to come to a halt.

“From simple things like traffic lights, to the operation of businesses and schools, to more detrimental things like water supply and sanitation services, our systems would literally grind to a halt,” said Sivparsad.

Of great concern, said Sivparsad, was that it could trigger sewage spills into the city’s rivers and streams as only two (one for water and one for sanitation) of the 36 pump stations had back-up generators.

“Most municipalities are in a similar situation. The pump stations are too large to run off generators for more than an hour or two — and extremely costly.

“Even if funding was available, the existing infrastructure does not allow for these diesel generators,” said Sivparsad.

He said anything more than a one- to two-hour break spelled “grave trouble”.

“Sanitation is a big concern for me. The sumps [storage areas] fill up and cannot be pumped out and neither can it be stored. So it can only overflow — and that goes straight into our rivers and streams. Containing this spillage and its disastrous effects is something we are planning around should we go beyond Stage 4 load-shedding again.”

Energy advisor Ted Blom said that unless the country obtained additional capacity on the grid, people should brace themselves for rolling blackouts and erratic electricity supply. “I am predicting major blackouts primarily because of the high number of breakdowns,” said Blom.

He said this was because of the numerous breakdowns caused by poor coal quality and a lack of maintenance compounded by Eskom’s lack of money to conduct proper maintenance on its power plants.

Chris Yelland, managing director at EE Business Intelligence that tracks demand and Eskom plant performance, said Eskom’s declining energy availability factor (EAF) was cause for serious concern.

He said unless there was a miraculous recovery, based on data from 2019, there was a grim picture of ageing, under-maintained and stressed power plants.

The energy availability factor shows the percentage of Eskom’s generation capacity that is available, taking into account planned maintenance and unplanned breakdowns.

“Last year hit a new record low of 67% (EAF) compared 2018’s 72%, while the last two weeks saw the figures dipping to 58%,” Yelland said.

At the same time, he said, there was no need to be alarmist as Eskom was involved with interventionist maintenance over the December holiday period — and which was classified as unplanned plant breakdowns.

“Several thousand megawatts of these unplanned breakdowns is actually maintenance, but Eskom should have communicated it better to allay fears,” he said.

Having predicted an increased demand in the second week of January as people return to work, Yelland said the real challenge was in the third and fourth week of January and early February.

“We can expect demand to ramp up by about 4 000 megawatts in this period compared to the low that occurs in week 52 of 2019 — week 52 is traditionally the lowest demand week of the year.

“However, it is expected that in this period Eskom will then utilise the 4 000 megawatts from the strategic maintenance they did over the Christmas period,” said Yelland.

Strategic maintenance, he said, however, was a short-term fix and did not address Eskom’s need for deep-level maintenance. Yelland forecast that the next two years will continue seeing periods of load-shedding based on the constraints of supply and demand.

Eskom: ‘Grid showing signs of stabilising’

On Friday, Eskom issued a notice saying the power grid was showing signs of stabilising in the short term. Unplanned outages or breakdowns stood at 11 576 MW and Eskom was working to reduce breakdowns to below 9 500 MW.

“We also managed to preserve our diesel stock as we did not have to operate the open cycle gas turbines today,” the power utility said. Although no load-shedding is expected, the system is vulnerable and this might change, it said.

In addition, Eskom advised that their emergency resources were adequate in case they needed to utilise them to supplement capacity.

“Our summer maintenance plan continues unabated with two big units at Hendrina and Lethabo going on scheduled maintenance today.

“We have planned accordingly to ensure that their absence does not destabilise the system. We are monitoring the system closely and we will continue to give periodic updates on the status of the power system as things may change at short notice,” said Eskom.

Eskom, however, advised that a concerted collective effort to reduce demand could help to avoid or lessen the level of loadshedding. It advises the following to reduce household electricity consumption:

• Set air-conditioners’ average temperature at 23° C

• Switch off geysers over peak periods

• Use the cold water tap rather than using the geyser every time

• Set your swimming pool pump cycle to run twice a day, three hours at a time for optimal energy use

• At the end of the day, turn off computers, copiers, printers and fax machines at the switch. Avoid stand-by or sleep mode.

‘It will take years to recover’

Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan conceded on Friday that it would take a long time for Eskom to recover fully from the damage caused by state capture. Gordhan was responding to a parliamentary question from EFF chairperson MP Veronica Mente.

Earlier this week, Eskom issued correspondence to all municipalities asking them to plan for Stage 8 load-shedding although it was not expected.

The notice, sent to the municipalities, was in keeping with Eskom’s obligations in terms of the Disaster Management Act that requires them to develop a contingency plan for identified major incidents.


Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  load shedding

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