Unhappy birthday to permanent load shedding in South Africa

 ·6 Sep 2023

6 September 2023 marks a full 365 days since what would eventually become permanent load shedding in South Africa was announced.

On 6 September 2022, Eskom announced that stage 2 load shedding would be put into effect for reasons that have become all too familiar: a shortage of generation capacity due to breakdowns and delays in returning tripped units to service.

The added kicker on that particular day was that Koeberg unit 2 had tripped, removing close to 1,000MW from the grid. All in all, 16,000MW was out due to breakdowns, and stage 2 load shedding was expected to run for the rest of the week.

Fast forward a year later, and many of the same problems are still around – only much worse.

Koeberg unit 2 is up and running – at least until November – but its sister unit (unit 1) is still down for maintenance, having missed its return target of June 2023 by quite some margin.

Unit 1 will return in November, Eskom has said – but don’t expect it to make much of a difference, considering Unit 2’s maintenance shutdown will start a few days after.

Breakdowns also remain a persistent problem. While Eskom has tried to keep unplanned generation losses to under 15,000MW, it has struggled to do so, with outages being between 16,000MW and 18,000MW in recent months.

While a week of stage 2 load shedding in September 2022 was once considered a bleak prospect, most would welcome that in 2023, considering we now have to contend with a week of stage 6.

The economy would also certainly welcome losing “only” R150 million a day instead of the R900 million daily blow it now has to suffer.

The high levels of load shedding starting in September 2022 through to December catapulted that year to become the worst year of load shedding on record.

Unfortunately, it only took until May 2023 (five months) to smash that record, with 2023 already wearing that crown boldly. And the record keeps growing with each passing day.

By the end of July 2023, South Africa had been in darkness for longer than the past five years of load shedding combined. By August, blackout hours in 2023 had passed the combined total of the previous ten years.

The latest stats show that 90% of the year (5,338 hours) have been spent in load shedding – with almost a quarter of the year (24%) being with zero power (blackout hours) – and this is on track to continue for the foreseeable future.

Permanent load shedding

While the start of South Africa’s current load shedding woes can be traced back to 6 September 2022, it wasn’t until 22 January 2023 that Eskom itself “announced” permanent load shedding.

At the time, Eskom chairperson Mpho Makwena – who came on board in October 2022 when daily load shedding was already in effect – said that the group would try to bring some predictability to outages, noting that the country should expect “some level of” permanent load shedding at stage 2 or stage 3 for at least two years.

Former Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter (who had a well-publicised exit from the group in February 2023) later clarified that this did not mean that the utility would stick to stage 2 and 3 load shedding on a permanent basis but rather that the country would struggle with capacity.

The point was moot, however, as South Africa had already been in a state of permanent load shedding since 6 September – and eventually, the reality would be that the country would far surpass stage 2 and stage 3, settling around an average of stage 4 in 2023.

While it would be perfectly accurate to say that the country has experienced a full year of load shedding, it would be a little bit unfair not to acknowledge that we have technically experienced at least four full days (24-hour periods) where outages weren’t in effect.

We caught a break on three days in October 2022, and one day in March 2023.

There were also longer periods, more recently, where outages were at least suspended during the day.

However, the reality is that South Africans haven’t been able to let their guard down for a year – and businesses, residents and even foreign travellers have to constantly walk the knife’s edge of if and when the next bout of outages will hit – worrying how bad it will be this time.

At a recent media engagement, I asked the acting Eskom chief executive officer, Calib Cassim, when South Africans would finally be able to relax, when the knife’s edge would dull, and load shedding would become less of a daily feature.

Understandably, there is no easy answer to this.

Politicians will tell you that load shedding will be a thing of the past very soon – a line repeated ad nauseam every time outages have cropped up in the last decade. Now, the line is just in time for elections.

Analysts and various experts – ever pragmatic, with both bearish and bullish leanings – have given us ranges: two years, five years, ten years, more.

Truthfully, no one can really say because no one really knows.

To his credit, Cassim dared not give a date (lest Eskom fall short, inviting further criticism) – but he did say that the future is looking more positive and hopeful than the past.

With new energy projects coming online, downed units returning, and South Africa at large dealing better with demand (thanks to solar installations and other measures), failing something going wildly wrong outside of Eskom’s control, at least 2024 hopes to be a better year, he said.

But as we “celebrate” the one-year birthday of permanent load shedding, sitting once again in the darkness of stage 6 – perhaps it’s best not to blow out the candles on the cake just yet.

We’ll be needing them.

Read: Rand takes a beating as stage 6 load shedding bites

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