The Department of Trade and Industry has gazetted a new plan to split South Africa into two separate time zones, in a desperate bid to alleviate peak pressure on the country’s crumbling power grid, and reduce the burden of load shedding.
The plan is detailed in a new Government Gazette, and appears to be a combined effort by the departments of Public Enterprises, Energy, Economic Development and Trade and Industry.
It forms part of the Electric Systems and Kilowatt Observation Management Bill, which government hopes to push through ahead of Winter, when Eskom’s power grid is most vulnerable.
Currently, South Africa operates on SAST – South African Standard Time – which is set two hours ahead of the Coordinated Universal Time (UCT+2).
The SAST Master Clock is maintained at the Time and Frequency Laboratory of the National Metrology Institute of South Africa (NMISA) at Pretoria and is distributed publicly by an NTP Internet Time service.
Because South Africa’s land mass is stretched across two time zones (UCT+1 and UCT+2) residents in Cape Town are in fact already an hour behind those in Johannesburg, and will experience later sunsets and sunrises.
Under the new plan, a ‘master clock’ will be created for the western times zone – ostensibly named South African West Time or SAWT – while the current master clock will continue to be held for the eastern time zone (South Africans East Time, or SAET).
The split between the two time-zones will be along the Northern and Western Cape borders – a little further east than the 22nd east meridian, which cuts through the provinces.
For administrative purposes, the split won’t cut through the North-West or the Eastern Cape, even though western towns in this provinces are technically in the UCT+1 zone.
‘Logical choice’ to save power
Speaking to BusinessTech, energy department spokesperson Edward Ugesi, said the idea to split South Africa into two time zones was mooted as far back as 2014, but never gained much attention because of the logistics of having to implement it.
However, the idea has gained traction in recent months, as the scale of the Eskom crisis and risk of higher stages of load shedding became apparent.
“The president (Cyril Ramaphosa) said that we need a plan that will work in the shorter-term. Splitting Eskom (into three companies) is for the long-term, but it doesn’t help when the crisis is now. There is no quick fix, but something like this is quicker,” Ugesi said.
Eskom is currently dealing with a financial and capacity crisis, as the power utility struggles to address its maintenance backlog, while also repairing breakages and unplanned outages due to its ageing network.
Scheduled rolling blackouts, or load shedding as it is known, was introduced to control the lack of capacity in a such a way that the entire grid doesn’t collapse under the strain.
According to the gazetted documents, by splitting South Africa into two different time zones, peak electricity demand will effectively be shared over two hours, reducing pressure on the system.
In effect, this will increase the average demand during the business day, but ‘smooth’ over demand during peak times, to prevent critical levels where the system could collapse.
This in turn will open up as much as 4,000MW of capacity, and greatly reduce the chances of load shedding, the department said.
The graph below outlines how South Africa’s current winter and summer demand profile looks over a day:
The graph below shows how the demand profile could look under two time zones:
This peak will also enable Eskom’s engineers to schedule maintenance at better times, which will result in the power utility’s backlog being addressed sooner.
While the plan does not have an implementation date – it is open for public comment – BusinessTech understands that the government will rush this through to the president for signing ahead of load heavy days in Winter.
Impact on businesses
For the plan to work, South African businesses will need to adopt the policy and implement some changes in their operations.
“In theory, it should be as easy as those west of the division line turning their clocks back an hour – but in practice, there are many administrative and logistical issues that come into play,” said analyst, Dr Christine Current.
According to Current, freight companies could be hard-hit, needing to install new systems to ensure that deliveries are made on time.
She said that a possible middle road during the transition would be for businesses to operate within their time zone hours, and keep track of SAST for logistics, however the reality is that they will ultimately need to adapt.
“Overall, you’re looking at billions of rands that will go into adopting and adjusting to the new time system – but if we can reduce power outages and bring a sense of consistency back into doing business, we will save billions more in the long run,” Current said.
If done correctly and efficiently, outside of operational costs, the actual changes wouldn’t take longer than a week for most businesses to get used to, she said, while residents would likely adapt within days.
“If you’re from Joburg and are going on holiday to Cape Town, you’ll need to remember to set your watch back an hour,” she said.
The full document is embedded below.