NEWS ANALYSIS: Cut down usage or face load shedding this winter, consumers warned

Carol Paton | 23 April 2013 | BDLive

SWITCH off your geyser between 5pm and 9pm, or face load shedding this winter, was the essence of the message conveyed by Eskom CEO Brian Dames and Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba at their briefing on the state of the system on Monday.

While this was the message, the words “there will be load shedding” were carefully avoided by both gentlemen.

Mr Dames, after being questioned, eventually said that only if faced with a blackout — that is, an unplanned catastrophic collapse of the system — would he “drop the load.” Mr Gigaba refused to say the words: “We will not say there will be load shedding, because you want us to say it.” However, he said that unless there was drastic behaviour change from consumers, Eskom would be unable to keep the lights on and certainly could not do the job alone.

While their message might be the last thing household consumers want to hear, the reality was that it was good news for at least two reasons. First, it represented a late (but better late than never) recognition that driving the power system hard, and delaying maintenance was shortening the life of Eskom’s assets and causing increasing equipment failures.

Mr Dames said that in the coming five years, maintenance will be done at a level of 10% a year without any compromise. Further, he said, that even during the winter months nine units — a unit is anywhere between 400MW and 800MW — will be taken down, as Eskom had reached a point “where maintenance cannot be delayed any longer”.

“The country must understand that for the last five years we have managed to keep the lights on. We did this by operating our power system much harder. Now it requires substantial maintenance to maintain performance,” he said.

Mr Gigaba was also at pains to point out that keeping the lights on at all costs was no longer tenable.

The performance of power stations had deteriorated significantly since September, he said, and there had been higher rates of unplanned outages. The root cause of this was delaying the maintenance of old plant and equipment, which was needed to make it more reliable.

Second, the briefing brought good news as it highlighted the extent to which Eskom was now planning for a tight system.

Energy analyst Chris Yelland says it is unlikely that the load shedding shock of 2008 will be repeated.

“In a subtle way, Eskom is already load shedding by paying customers to switch off and exercising interruptibility contracts. It is possible we could experience more direct load shedding, but we should take heart that never have they been more transparent or planned for better,” he says.

The unanswered question though is whether household savings of 10%, or 2000MW, will be enough to keep the lights on for everyone.

The problems at Koeberg and Cahora Bassa have meant that in the past three months, available capacity has hardly edged over 32,000MW. But peak demand in winter is anticipated to be about 37,000MW.

While fixing Koeberg has taken almost a month more than expected but is likely to happen, Eskom concedes bringing stability to Cahora Bassa — which is increasingly volatile — is going to be more difficult.