/ 20 February 2023

South Africa edges closer towards stage eight load-shedding

Load Shedding Eskom
A general view shows trails of lights from passing vehicles in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, which is submerged in darkness due to load-shedding

Despite fears that Eskom would plunge the country into stage eight load-shedding from the current stage six, outgoing chief executive Andre de Ruyter has given reassurance that the situation does not warrant escalating the rolling power cuts.

During a media briefing on Monday, De Ruyter said that the utility was in the process of reviewing its documentation and schedules that govern stages of load-shedding, “forming contingencies for if the country hits stage eight”.

“We do have contingency plans should there be a further loss in generation capacity. I can give the country the assurance that we are doing everything in our power to ensure that we do not end up in a situation where we go beyond that,”  he said.

De Ruyter said the demand forecast for Monday evening was 27 282MW. With a shortfall of 5 834MW of capacity, he said, stage six was necessary.

Eskom’s head of generation, Thomas Conradie, told journalists that if the current rains eased, the situation at the Lethabo power station could normalise.

“There is a coal stockpile at Lethabo. It is just very wet,” Conradie said. 

In a statement on Sunday, the state-owned power utility announced stage six load-shedding, saying it had lost 59% of its generation capacity due to heavy rains which had prevented coal delivery from the New Vaal mine to Lethabo. It said the power station’s three running units were at risk of shutting down if coal supply constraints were not resolved.

Eskom reported breakdowns amounting to 21 243MW of power, close to half of the installed capacity of its 48 000MW, which is the amount of electricity it can produce. It said over 3 500MW were also out of service for maintenance, meaning that, in total, more than half of the capacity was offline. This has raised fears of the country hitting stage eight load-shedding and an outright blackout.

“Eskom’s fleet has run out of time and unfortunately you can’t catch up if you have run out of it,” energy analyst Clyde Mallinson told M&G. “We are moving from preventing load-shedding to mitigating load-shedding. The possibility of stage eight is very much apparent now.”

De Ruyter said Eskom had resolved constraints over diesel supplies, allowing it to run its open-cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) when needed.

“The OCGTs can provide up to 2 200MW of generation capacity to the power grid, offsetting two stages of load-shedding,” he said, adding that the utility had secured the backing of the treasury regarding funding for diesel supplies.

“Treasury is giving assurance to the banks from which Eskom is borrowing money, and standing behind the state-owned power utility’s loans,” he added.

Experts had previously said higher levels of load-shedding, beyond stage eight, would likely only be experienced during the winter months when demand on the grid is significantly higher than the rest of the year.

However, De Ruyter said Eskom would ensure that approximately 1 628MW of generation capacity — currently offline for repairs — was returned to the system by winter. He said the utility was working hard to restore generating capacity and hoped to de-escalate stage six load-shedding by the weekend.

“The stage six load-shedding will likely last until evening peak on Wednesday, and could drop to stage four on Thursday morning,” he said, adding that Eskom had around 12 318MW offline due to full load losses and another 5 993MW in partial load losses. Coal constraints and a boiler tube leak at Lethabo power station resulted in another 2 100 MW being unavailable.

But load-shedding itself means that a total collapse of the grid is unlikely, as energy expert David Walwyn has previously explained. Eskom uses the rotational power cuts to maintain a balance between demand and power generated. Only if this balance is not kept, will there be a grid collapse. 

Eskom maintains that this is not going to happen. 

But the utility did warn in its statement that with the high number of breakdowns, it was possible that the load-shedding stage could increase “at short notice”. 

It highlighted the problems which had forced it to apply stage six load-shedding, including a generating unit each at Arnot, Hendrina, Lethabo and Majuba, as well as two units at Camden suffering breakdowns and being taken offline for repairs since Sunday afternoon.

“Further, two generating units at the Lethabo power station were shut down due to coal constraints as the New Vaal mine that is supplying the station has been unable to deliver the expected amount of coal during the past week because of the heavy rains. The three running units are operating at minimum capacity and are at risk of shutdown should the coal supply constraints not be resolved,” Eskom said.

Stage eight loadshedding would mean possibly 12 to 14 hours a day with no power and there are fears that this would lead to widespread economic collapse and social upheaval, including public sparking protests or civil disobedience. It would also adversely affect the pumping and treatment of water, which has already been impacted by the rolling power cuts. 

Walwyn believes there are contingencies in place to stop a total blackout from happening, but if the improbable were to happen, Mail & Guardian has previously reported that black-start facilities are on hand. These facilities can restore energy to a power station and help the network recover from a shutdown.

Compounding the country’s power crunch, on Monday Durban experienced a major power outage with many areas affected. In an update posted on its Facebook page, the eThekwini city council said it was aware of a trip at the high voltage major substation in Klaarwater, which had affected many areas across the city.