That blackout feeling

19th May 2023

By: Terence Creamer

Creamer Media Editor


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There is justifiable concern that South Africa’s grid could collapse this winter, given ongoing high breakdowns across the Eskom coal fleet, the absence of one Koeberg unit and a rise in demand in response to the colder weather.

While the probability of a total blackout is low, the possibility of Stage 8-plus loadshedding is high. And at such levels, it will be difficult for most South Africans to distinguish between a blackout and loadshedding, as on many days we will endure far more hours without power than with power.

Individuals and businesses, therefore, do need to prepare for a scenario that may not technically be a total grid collapse but will pose risks that are not dissimilar to those that could present during a sustained blackout.

The immediate fear relates to an intensification of crime and violence, as safety and security infrastructure and operations are largely dependent, as is the case with most activities in the modern era, on electricity. The risk of looting and rioting could be further exacerbated if food supply chains are disrupted, given that electricity is required all along that chain. The agricultural industry has done an unbelievable job until now to ensure that loadshedding has not translated into shortages, but the impact is being felt in higher prices, which are undermining affordability, and that could also spark unrest.

Another area of concern relates to the security of supply of diesel, which is playing a key role in mitigating the worst effects of loadshedding. Diesel is not only being used by Eskom to produce electricity, but also across industries to keep the lights on and even by many households. What’s more, the collapse of parts of the freight rail system has increased our reliance on trucks, which are fuelled by diesel.

The diesel supply-demand balance is, thus, going to be important to watch in the coming months, with Eskom expecting to ramp up the load factor of its open-cycle gas turbines from an average of 11% to around 20%. Businesses and households that can still afford to do so will do likewise should Stage 8-plus levels be declared.

Given that the authorities have been so slow to react to a crisis that has been building for over 16 years, there are very few levers other than diesel and loadshedding left for the system operator to pull this winter. Perhaps government could consider power buybacks to incentivise large consumers to conduct their yearly shutdowns over June and July, but all the other demand-side levers are likely to take months, possibly years, to scale up.

The only possible immediate prospect for relief, therefore, is associated with the performance of the coal fleet and whether breakdowns can be limited to below 15 000 MW. This, no doubt, is the plan, but the prospect of success if arguably low, particularly given the recent breakdown performance, which has been closer to 20 000 MW.

It is, thus, not unreasonable to prepare for the worst.

Edited by Terence Creamer
Creamer Media Editor


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