Free service to mitigate load-shedding

2015-01-29 15:43

We have developed a free web-based service that notifies you of load shedding status changes, the times of the current day it will affect your chosen area, as well as providing 15-minute warnings of impending load-shedding in your area. For those areas that appear first on the days' load-shedding schedule, we also provide early warning to ensure you are not taken by surprise. You can set notifications for multiple areas such as home, work etc. All information sent to you is specific to your configured areas only, so you dont have to pore over constantly changing complex schedules smattered with information on areas and zones that do not interest you.

To properly understand and appreciate how the service works and delivers information to you, you can read the below background information. We provide a link to register for the service at the very bottom of this page.

A].THE ELECTRICITY CRISES

Load-shedding is going to be upon us for at least 4-6 months. If the ESKOM CEO announced as much at a recent press conference, you know things are bad. Many industry analysts say that this problem is now here to stay for at least 3-5 years. There are many reasons we find ourselves in this unfortunate situation, the main being that:

1]. The ANC-led government failed dismally to recognize that we were running out of reserve power 15 years ago,

2]. The build-programme to rectify this grave oversight is 4 years late and way,way over budget with a R71bn cost over-run

3]. ESKOM was not allowed the price increases by NERSA necessary to pay for an aggressive build program as well as a rigorous maintenance program for existing crumbling infrastructure,

4]. Municipalities that owe ESKOM over R21Bn in unpaid electricity fees upon which they cannot collect due to political pressure

5]. Over 7% of capacity, (3,000Mw) lost due to "non-technical reasons" (theft and illegal connections, free electricity in Soweto etc.)

6]. Pressure from the ANC-led government to keep the lights on at all costs since just before the 2010 soccer World Cup, at the expense of maintenance of aging,buckling infrastructure,

7]. Aggressive rollout of electricity connections to previously disadvantaged areas resulted in higher demand without a concomitant  increase in supply

8]. A staggering loss of crucial technical, institutional and managerial skills built up over decades, due to aggressive BEE policies and cadre deployment at the parastatal.

To see how dramatically this all affected ESKOM's ability to keep the lights on, read our previous article on News24 Voices "SA in deeper electricity crises than you think" which was penned on 9 Dec 2014.

B].WHY WE DECIDED WE NEEDED THIS SERVICE

Shortly after penning the above article, we got whacked with load-shedding. I remember waking up each morning and my wife asking me "Are we being load-shed today?" I had to log onto the City of Cape Town web site to see if ESKOM was load-shedding. If not, then the answer was an easy "No, thank goodness". However if we were in a load-shedding phase I would have to remember my area number and then consult busy time tables with all sorts of other areas mixed up with mine to determine the times it was going to affect us. It wasn't that bad when Cape Town was on fixed days of the week schedules, but from February they are following Gauteng to rotate between days of the month, meaning there is no easily remembered, set pattern we can rely on, forcing us to consult the tables each day. I looked at the other 4 major municipalities and they all suffered the same issues.

On the following day, we were being load-shed and my theft tracking system in my car had gone faulty and I had to go to a service provider to have it fixed. I remarked to them that we were in load-shedding and if they knew when they would be affected. They were not even aware we were being load-shed, so they gratefully thanked me and consulted their tables. " We are only being load-shed at 4pm" the receptionist replied, visibly grateful that it would not disrupt their workload for the day too badly. I recall looking at the long line of cars queued up outside their workshop, hoping my car got done before the dreaded 4pm arrived. Thankfully, my vehicle was ready and they phoned me at 3pm to come and collect it. I arrived at their workshop at 4pm to chaos. Although everyone knew load-shedding was at 4pm they were so busy that nobody raised the alarm before 4pm and now a bunch of cars were stuck on hydraulic lifts. I wondered how many thousands of small businesses suffered such unfortunate circumstances due to lack of adequate planning and warnings.

That weekend I decided to treat my wife to lunch in town. We arrived, placed our orders and after 30 minutes the lights went out. The waiter came and informed us that the chef never managed to finish our food and unfortunately we would not be able to have lunch. We were really hungry and irritated. But I realized then that we were in serious trouble if we had to load-shed on weekends to build up diesel reserves for peak-load generators that were being forced to provide base load capacity. At that point I knew there had to be another way for private electricity consumers and for small businesses to manage or partly mitigate load-shedding disruptions that were looming down on us and our economy.

The following week, I was at work when the electricity suddenly went off at 10am. The ESKOM website was showing "No Load-shedding" at 5 minutes to 10. I consulted the load-shedding tables and saw that my area was the first to be load-shed for the day and ESKOM had obviously instituted load-shedding at 10am meaning we had no warning. This is a major problem for all areas that are first on the schedule after ESKOM decides to load-shed, as the ESKOM site only updates its load-shedding status the minute the first areas are cut-off. It's thus impossible to get a warning if you are first on the list. With the rotational day-of-the-month schedules instituted by Cape Town and Johannesburg you are bound to land up as one of these unfortunate people at some time or other. I found out that if you monitored certain news sites and twitter feeds you could get pre-warning of load-shedding intentions at least 30 minutes before actual load-shedding for the day was due to start. But this is a hassle.Surely there had to be a better way.

C]. THE DESIGN CRITERIA

I got back to the office one Monday and instructed my development teams to "down-tools" on all our existing projects for PowerStocks Equity Research and RecessionALERT.com so that we could design something that would ease the pain of all this load-shedding. My requirements were simple:

1]. I didn't want to keep having to monitor ESKOM's website to find out what the load-shedding status was

2]. I didnt want to keep having to consult complicated, cryptic and ever-changing load shedding schedules at my municipality web site ("What zone am I again?")

3]. I needed an "early warning" if my area was the first on the load-shedding schedule since the load-shedding status change event by ESKOM would then be of no use to me

4]. If ESKOM was about to, or had just initiated load-shedding, I wanted an email alert together with the times it was going to effect me going forward for the week

5]. Load-shedding effected me at home and at my office so I wanted to receive alerts for  multiple areas

6]. When we were in an extended load-shedding period of more than 1 day, I would like an early morning "reminder"  informing me of what times of the day I was going to be impacted today

7]. I wanted a 15-minute warning before I was due to be load-shed, so that I would have enough time to prepare for it, in case I had  forgotten the scheduled time.

8]. If ESKOM changed the load-shedding status up or down, I wanted an updated schedule for my area sent to me so I could assess the impact for the remainder of the day or week

9]. If ESKOM suspended load shedding, I wanted to receive an immediate alert.

D]. WHAT WE BUILT

A web-application that met all the above criteria was created by our development team, that follows the below process: (click for larger view)

When ESKOM issues a load-shedding instruction to the municipalities, there is a time-lag before the load-shedding status is updated on the various municipality web-sites and even on the ESKOM web site itself! The City of Cape Town sometimes publishes the load-shedding status (stage 1,2 or 3) before the ESKOM web-site does!  Apart from Cape Town, which is very fast and consistent, all the municipalities are very tardy in updating their status and lags of 20 minutes were sometimes observed! For this reason, our program monitors both ESKOM and the City of Cape Town's load-shedding status to see whom issues the alert first, so we can get your alert out as soon as possible.

In addition, we have a software algorithm monitoring various news sites and twitter feeds for ESKOM pre-announcements or press conferences of upcoming load-shedding, so that we can get alerts out even earlier and warn all those areas first on the days' loads-shedding schedule, since these areas only learn of load-shedding the minute their electricity goes off!

You will then receive an email with your specified areas and what days and times of the remainder of the week you are going to be affected. Additionally, 15 minutes before these areas are scheduled to be load-shed, you will receive an optional short alarm/warning email in case you got so busy you forgot that you were being load-shed. This gives you time to boil that kettle, fill that bath, get those cars off the jacks or save your work on your computer.

If load-shedding is suspended during the course of the day, you will receive another alert to tell you the good news. However, if we are in an extended load-shedding period you will receive an optional email the next morning just showing you the times of the current day that you need to be aware of.

E]. CONCLUSION

The web-application is now live and available completely obligation free. We are hoping to get someone to sponsor the service to pay for additional SMS alerting capability (to send SMS will cost us over R0.20 per alert which is too much for us to swallow given the thousands of signups) but if you have email on your smartphone, you can still get push-alerts depending on which email client you use or how you set it up.

If our developers have some spare time we are considering developing a lightweight notifier app for Android and IOS that could send you immediate push-alerts to your tablet or smartphone. You could then configure this app with a real big siren warning to jolt you awake with the alerts. But we figure what we have is a good enough start to alleviate some of the hassle and inconvenience caused by load-shedding.

Each municipality has different schedules and different ways in which they implement and rotate their  load-shedding  and so a considerable amount of my team's precious (and expensive) time was spent in custom-tailoring the system to each municipality. For this reason, we chose the largest municipalities by population, namely Cape Town, Durban, Gauteng and Tshwane. If these municipalities change their schedules in any way we have to modify our software accordingly which means there is likely to be an ongoing running cost for us as well. For this reason we have no immediate plans to expand beyond these 4 major municipalities.

Finally, please note that if you receive your electricity from ESKOM directly, or from a municipality other than the 4 we have listed, then unfortunately we cannot provide alerts to you. As much as we hate excluding large swathes of the country, there is only so much we can provide for free without distracting us from our core business and/or costing us large sums of money.

F]. GET LOAD-SHEDDING ALERTS!

You can register for the free, no obligation service at www.sharenet.co.za/loadshedding.

The web-applications' development, operation and ongoing maintenance is funded by PowerStocks Equity Research , RecessionALERT.com and Sharenet. If you are interested in assisting us with sponsorship for the SMS notifications or additions of further municipalities (provided they publish load shedding schedules) then please contact mark@sharenet.co.za.

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