/ 23 February 2023

CSIR warns that Eskom’s energy crunch will continue to wreak havoc and could cause water cuts

Water Trucks Fill Up And Transport Water To The Reservoir Photo Delwyn Verasamy
We have learned to live with sporadic electricity supply but South Africans will not be as kind to the government if our taps run dry. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Eskom’s power crisis is getting worse and it will continue to wreak havoc on businesses, water systems and South African lives if it fails to improve its energy availability factor (EAF), says Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) chief researcher Warrick Pierce.

Pierce, presenting his findings on Eskom’s performance on Wednesday, highlighted that the country’s energy supply crisis had worsened significantly in 2022 – especially in the second half of the year – adding that things could get worse.

“Eskom has been transparent about the fact that we are in an electricity crisis, however, the crisis is actually worsening,” Pierce said.

He added: “Significant intervention is required or things will continue to get worse. Fortunately, we are seeing the government step in and start to implement plans. Once we can see the EAF stabilise, that would be a good metric to measure improvement.” 

The EAF dropped to below 50% this year for the first time. 

Pierce noted that Eskom has moved from a capacity shortage to a capacity and energy shortage.

“We have a problem where the Eskom fleet is sweating the assets, causing a capacity shortage and increased breakdowns, as a result of unplanned breakdowns, worsening the crisis and reinforcing load-shedding.”

Pierce said if additional capacity is not added to the grid, South Africa’s energy crisis will continue to spiral, particularly if the EAF of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations also continues to deteriorate — and there is no sign of it stabilising.

There are two key metrics to measure the future of the electricity supply.

“We first need to see the Eskom fleet stabilising. It’s like filling a bucket that has holes; you must start plugging them.”

While there are enough megawatts online to supply energy, the functionality of Eskom’s fleet had significantly reduced since June last year.

The second metric is seeing significant megawatts being connected to the grid. “But that is still a few years away,” Pierce added.

In 2021, previously South Africa’s worst-ever year for load-shedding, 2 521 gigawatts hours of energy was shed and 1 169 hours disrupted. Last year, the CSIR announced that Eskom had cut 2 276GWh of electricity in the first six months — more than 90% of the 2 521GWh it shed for the entire 2021.

The intensification of load-shedding last year led to the 25 July announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa of a series of interventions to address the problem, including the establishment of a National Energy Crisis Committee.

Three priority levers were identified to close the prevailing supply-demand gap: improving the performance of Eskom’s coal fleet; getting power from independent producers and hiring skilled workers who can manage these issues.

The CSIR attributed the decline in the EAF largely to the increase in unplanned outages experienced by Eskom and suggested that there had been a “flattening out” of the EAF during the year.

The capacity of coal and nuclear plants both fell to 52.4% during the first half of 2022, having been 55.7% and 53%, respectively, in the corresponding period of 2021.

The study shows that during the first half of the year, the total system demand was similar to the previous year but still below the pre-Covid lockdown levels of 2019.

With 5 761 gigawatts per hour of energy shed by September last year, and with the country having implemented stage six load-shedding in 2022 for the first time since 2019, the government has sought to support the stabilisation of the country’s energy network through its series of interventions.

Water cuts

The energy issue is having an impact on the water sector as well. CSIR senior civil engineer Odwa Badi warned of a water supply deficit in the coming years “if South Africa doesn’t act now to stabilise the erratic energy supply”.

“If anything, there will be a 17% deficit in water supply by 2030 if we do not address the current power crisis. Over the next 10 years, the water department will also need R33 billion annually to resolve the deficit,” he said.

“The electricity switching on and off is having a negative impact on our infrastructure. Supply must be consistent; the on and off does affect how the reservoirs function,” he said.

Badi added that because of unemployment caused by load-shedding and companies closing down, the country’s water reservoirs were vulnerable to crime as people grew desperate for an income.

Last week, Eskom announced that there was growing concern about vandalism which had affected Rand Water’s supply to its customers in Ekurhuleni in Gauteng.

Eskom confirmed that the bulk water supplier’s insulators at its Mapleton line in the city were tampered with on Wednesday. This puts residents in multiple metros at risk of water shortages.

Badi added that the bottom 15% to 20% of water in reservoirs should never get to people’s taps but the erratic power supply, in some cases, led to the sediment at the bottom of them being transported to residents.

“At least 64% of South Africans have a reliable water supply, meaning 36% of the population is without it. Around 61% of the country’s water supply goes to the agricultural sector, and 27% goes to the municipalities, which supply residents and commercial entities,” he said.

Badi said if the current load-shedding crisis continues, the government will not reach its sustainable development goal of improving access to clean, reliable drinking water for all South Africans by 2030.