Christmas comes early for Eskom

 ·4 Dec 2023

Power utility Eskom is facing its festive season peak almost two weeks ahead of schedule, as diesel shortages and political “micromanagement” deliver a chaotic load shedding pattern.

Analysing historical data, Eskom typically experiences a surge in power demand in the first half of December – the two weeks before Christmas – as factories ramp up production before the close of the year, and the power stations come under strain due to hotter weather.

However, the latest data shows that this has now shifted two weeks earlier in 2023.

According to data compiled by independent energy analyst Pieter Jordaan, the 2023 pre-festive season blackout pattern has arrived earlier, but is marginally milder than 2022 due to it being on a lower base.

What makes this particularly worrying, though, is that this is happening despite three large units at Kusile returning to service after a year of troubles.

“Eskom was unable to narrow the supply gap much, even after reporting substantial relief in breakdowns suffered. The week was also marked by sudden and multiple up-and-down changes to the load shedding schedules,” he said.

“(This) is indicative of the high levels of political micro-management that is still prevalent in the utility’s operations.”

The Bureau for Economic Research (BER) noted that, despite nearly 3,000MW of power being reconnected to the grid in recent weeks, load shedding continued unabated last week, including at stage 6 and sudden escalations to higher stages.

“From Eskom’s regular updates, it seems that they were not running any of the open cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) during peak demand on, amongst other days, Wednesday night, but were load-shedding more than 4,000MW at the time,” it said.

These diesel issues were flagged several times by Jordaan over the last few weeks, where he noted that emergency reserves were being tapped while the utility was turning to pumped storage.

This was again reflected in Eskom’s haphazard load shedding schedules and rapid changes over the weekend. For now stage 3 and stage 4 load shedding are in effect on a rotational basis, as the group again focuses on replenishing its emergency reserves.

The BER warned that any issues with the supply of diesel preventing Eskom from using the OCGTs are likely to result in more frequent and higher stages of load shedding.

More positively, “there was some progress with Eskom’s turnaround plan as the World Bank, one of the big creditors, gave consent to separate the transmission division to a new national company,” the BER said.

“However, more creditors need to provide consent before the process can be finalised.”

According to Jordaan’s data, South Africa has now more than doubled the number of blackout hours seen in 2022, and the country is on track to hit a cumulative 76.6 days (1,838 blackout hours) by the end of the year.

The recent power crisis episode also caused the meter to start correcting towards its linear trend, the analyst said.

Read: Stage 4 load shedding sticking around all week – here’s the new schedule

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